Wednesday, 15 March 2017
Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at The Harold Pinter Theatre
Imelda Staunton does it again, this time nailing the part of Martha in Edward Albee’s landmark play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at The Harold Pinter Theatre. She is aided and abetted by Conleth Hill, as husband George, along with Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway as the other unhappily married couple in this blistering 1962 play that more than stands the test of time. Add to this mix, the spot on direction by James Macdonald and the three hours speed by.
Staunton begins the play on a high note when we hear her braying and yelling offstage as she and Hill unlock the front door of their tired and drab 1950’s New England home having returned from a particularly dull faculty party hosted by Martha’s father. He is the high rolling principal of the college, whilst portly George hasn’t risen in the ranks and still remains a nobody in the history department. This, amongst many other things rankles his relentlessly brash and often downright unpleasant wife. Not that George is the docile put upon sap that he appears to be as he pops on his slippers and cardigan. George’s acerbic wit comes to the fore once it becomes clear that the night is not yet over because Martha has asked a young couple they’ve just met round for drinks. In fact it soon transpires that, although the outrageous Martha spends her whole life goading and belittling the excuse for a man she has married, her ‘victim’ is actually a ‘professional’ manipulator. He no more wants this self-satisfied career scientist and his seemingly mouse-like wife round for drinks than a kick in the head, but now they’re here, he is quite happy to inveigle them into joining in the marital mind games he and Martha are so used to playing. Humiliate the Host, is closely followed by Get the Guests and Hump the Hostess, all initiated by the quietly spoken but no less lethal member of this dysfunctional couple.
Imelda ‘pocket rocket’ Staunton is so, so good at portraying the ghastly, disillusioned Martha that there could have been the likelihood of her upstaging everyone else in the production if they weren’t so well cast. Conleth Hill’s controlled and nuanced performance and his ability to make the most of Albee’s dry and witty dialogue makes him more than a match for the boozy Martha. They are a pairing made in (well not heaven exactly, for this marriage is hell) and spar as if their lives depend on it. Imogen Poots, in her first stage appearance, and Luke Treadaway are likewise perfectly believable. His character, Nick, looks on in bemusement and, at times, disgust, whilst Honey veers from frailty to steeliness once she has digested a few brandies.
It is patently obvious that George and Martha’s ‘performance’ has been honed to perfection over the years. This is the way they live their lives; her yelling and denigrating, him quietly disparaging. But tonight Martha crosses the line in the sand and mentions the couple’s twenty-one year old son. This is the one and only rule of the lifelong game that sustains their marriage and she has broken it.
The result of this aberration is, thanks to Staunton’s mastery of inhabiting a role, devastating to watch. Her shrieks are reduced to a whisper, although, of course, you can still hear every syllable. Finally the plot of this game the pair have constructed to protect themselves from the unbearable truth is laid bare. How will they survive?