Harold Pinter Theatre, London – 27 May 2017
THE DARK HEART OF MARRIAGE… One audience tweeter emerged calling James Macdonald’s fine production “exhilarating”. A wet rag after three hours’ exposure to it, I wouldn’t echo the word. More stunned than exhilarated. And anyway, Edward Albee himself wanted his work to be “disturbance..an attack on the unconscious” and decried the idea of art as “pacification”. He was out to get us. And he does.
I am a good guinea-pig for his effectiveness, since by chance it is the Albee play I have never seen (not even the Burton-Taylor film) or read. I considered reading it by way of preparation, but for the sake of experience opted to arrive as innocent as the 1962 audiences (who kept it running for 664 performances) and the Pulitzer committee (who found it “filthy” and refused it the prize). So I got the full shock of its hideous raging vigour, its violent brilliance in an unsparing portrait of a toxic, drunken co-dependent marriage in a stiff New England academic community.
The crisis portrayed is between 2 am and dawn as Martha – the Principal’s daughter – and George, who feels a failure as writer and academic, host young newcomers Nick and Honey after a faculty party. It hit me like a truck, as it should: not least because of the explosive substance that is Imelda Staunton, firmly at its black bitter suffering heart as Martha.
There is deep cunning in the way it opens, as the couple burst in half-tipsy and quarrelling with Martha effing and blinding because her – apparently – wearily enduring klutz of a husband can’t help her remember the name of a Bette Davis film. We’ve all been there. Well, a bit. But before long George too reveals his nightmare side, as Conleth Hill’s performance ranks alongside Staunton’s in its fury and pain.
Despite its classic status, I will eschew spoilers in case there are other Albee-virgins out there: but we are plunged into shocks, sudden revelations which might not be true, unspeakably painful torrents of scorn and the spectacle of the guests – Imogen Poots both fragile and hilarious, and Luke Treadaway struggling to hold on to his preppie-scientist dignity. They are drawn in to the hosts’ rackety fantasy world. It is the nadir of social hell.
The play’s gruelling brilliance is served superbly by all the cast. But then, it has to be – especially by Martha – or it would be downright unbearable. It edges towards that, but is always drawn back by the profound identification of Imelda Staunton as the damaged and desperate harridan; especially in the third exorcising act, her intensity draws out compassion and understanding. But it is still terrifying.
Albee was fighting against an enduring 1950’s stuffiness in American society (itself a reaction against the disruption of war) and attacking the safe hokey image of the perfect, indissoluble American marriage and family. It flits through one’s mind occasionally that we are now so far from taking that sort of image for granted that the play might be dated. Would not this terrible pair have torn themselves asunder today and found quieter lives? But maybe not, God help us. The play’s pitiless razor-sharp humanity is universal enough for a good shudder, anyway.
box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 27 May