It’s 55 years since Edward Albee’s seminal play opened on Broadway and became an instant hit. It was denied the Pulitzer Prize on the grounds that it was “filthy”, but the film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton scooped five Oscars in 1966.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is unlikely to offend modern sensibilities, but has lost none of its bite. Albee passed away last September and it’s the first of two revivals in the West End – The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? opens at Theatre Royal Haymarket next month, starring Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo.
Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill take on the roles of Martha and George, a middle-aged couple who live in a claustrophobic college town on the East Coast. He’s a mediocre history professor; she’s the daughter of the president of the college and likes to spend her days necking gin and humiliating her long-suffering husband.
Martha has invited guests over: a promising young professor called Nick and his simpering “slim-hipped” wife Honey, played by Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots in her West End debut. To their embarrassment, the golden couple realise they’re spectators at a domestic boxing match: Martha lands barb after jibe with a practised arm, George is battle-weary but ducks and weaves until his passive-aggressive blows hit home. It’s funny and excruciating by turns; often it’s both at the same time.
Luke Treadaway as Nick and Imogen Poots as Honey; main picture: Imelda Staunton as Martha (photos by Johan Persson)
All the action takes places in one night and as the spirits flow, the cracks in the young couple’s marriage are exposed. Martha lets slip to Honey that it’s their son’s 21st birthday tomorrow. George is furious; she’s broken the rules. Clearly the parent-child relationship isn’t harmonious either but we’re not sure why.
Last year Staunton won an Olivier for her virtuoso performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy and this will surely bag her another. Her Martha is nippier than Elizabeth Taylor’s – one minute she’s all sinuous, sexy charm, the next she’s a shrieking harridan. In the final act, the unhappiness that fuels her ire is laid painfully and pitifully bare.
Conleth Hill’s George is also wonderfully nuanced; there is love in this destructive marriage as well as torment. Poots is hilarious as eager-to-please Honey, who succumbs to the brandy, while Treadaway also puts in a first-rate turn as the smug interloper who is no match for Martha and George’s games.
This revival will go down as one of the greats.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at Harold Pinter Theatre until 27 May. It will also be broadcast live to cinemas on 18 May at 7:30pm. Check ntlive.com for your nearest cinema.