Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 25 May 2017
There are few theatrical pleasures greater than witnessing the formidable Imelda Staunton graft fresh insights onto a well-known role: it can be almost as exhausting to watch as to do since you can’t look away. Now following on from her re-illumination of Kath in Entertaining Mr Sloane, via Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Rose in Gypsy comes a coruscating performance as bitter faculty wife Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Measuring her bile as though it were rationed, containing it, restraining, recharging with surface sweetness before spitting it hard again like a viper, she wipes the floor with husband George, and the screen with Elizabeth Taylor.
Game of Thrones’ (no, I’ve still never seen it) Conleth Hill is every bit her sparring partner, a belittled domestic sluggard who turns avenging Titan in this fresh, urgent and sexually-charged version of Albee’s fiercely-burning tragicomedy. He might put you slightly in mind of Donald Trump from the floppy haircut and vocal delivery, but his is such a considered, thoughtful, intelligent and novel reading of the character that it also deserves awards.
For those who have been living under a rock since the Burton/Taylor movie: George is a time-served but not highly-decorated history prof in a small-time American campus where Martha’s father is president of the University. After a faculty party, they ‘entertain’ young Nick, a newly-appointed biology lecturer, and his bilious wife Honey to copious drinks – boy could everyone neck it in 1962 – and to some dangerous party games.
Although Edward Albee wrote it as a depiction and critique of 1960s mores, James Macdonald directs with a contemporary and aggressive sexual edge: Staunton’s overt groping and open-mouthed kissing with boyish stud Nick is grotesque and enthralling at the same time. The way the production now handles Martha’s serial but meaningless adulteries, Nick’s ambitious willingness to sleep with her to further his career, and her detailed depiction of his ‘floppy’ failure to achieve ‘such an impressive potential’ further illuminates the societal changes over fifty years.
As Nick, Luke Treadaway gives good value as the handsome preppy academic saddled too early with an unequal wife, although he’s somewhat slender of frame for a college boxing champ and smokes to punctuate his lines as though he only learned the technique in the last days of rehearsals. Imogen Poots‘ drunken, gauche Honey is a little secondary, but that may be because Albee had only limited interest in younger women either as characters or in life.
In fact, there’s a suggestion he envisioned a version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be played by four gay men – an older long-established couple in a destructive relationship, and a young and more idealistic one. Given that the having children is no longer an exclusively heterosexual preserve, perhaps the time’s come for such a revival.
Until then, you absolutely must not miss this one.