Edward Albee’s play has had several incarnations since it was first a Broadway hit in 1962. The married couple around which the plot centres has created some weighty pairings through the years – Patrick Stewart and Billie Whitelaw, Diana Rigg and David Suchet, and in the 1966 film, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Now the second Broadway revival transfers to the West End with a Tony-nominated cast and Anthony Page at the helm. Caroline Bishop joined the plethora of celebrities in the first night audience to see how Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin fare as the deliciously acerbic George and Martha.
When the Apollo theatre’s curtain goes down at the end of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? it feels like you’ve run a particularly bruising gauntlet. But this gauntlet is emotional not physical, as Albee’s play is three hours of sharp one-liners, caustic wit and double meanings that descends into brutal character assassination and painful soul-bearing by all of the quartet of protagonists.
George and Martha are a middle-aged couple whose marriage, though once loving, has become a daily cat fight. Martha (Kathleen Turner) is a domineering, brash, intelligent fifty-something woman, the daughter of the President of the college where they live. George (Bill Irwin) is a History teacher whose grey attire symbolises his contrast with Martha and all the reasons she is disappointed in him – “you were expected to be someone,” she rails at one point. Though dominated by Turner’s loud-mouthed, buxom Martha, George is no meek pushover and gives as good as he gets as the two use each other’s faults as energy for their quick fire verbal boxing, which George describes as “merely exercising”.
At two in the morning after they get home from her father’s party, Martha announces she has invited guests to the house. Into this already volatile atmosphere come young Biology teacher Nick (David Harbour) and his younger, “slim-hipped” and vacant wife Honey (Mireille Enos), unaware that they are to be used and abused as pawns in their hosts’ attempts to knock each other out. As copious alcohol is consumed and the hour gets later, Nick and Honey are outclassed and outwitted by the older, more intelligent couple as they are led down an emotional lane where they are forced to reveal the flaws in their own relationship, in a cruel ‘game’ named by George as “Get The Guest”.
Nick and Honey’s relationship is merely used by George and Martha to attack each other, and gradually during the three acts the pair’s partner-bashing is pushed beyond all limits and the history that is fuelling the furore finally comes out. In an emotionally-draining conclusion the shocking reason for all their unhappiness is revealed. Their attacks on each other, it turns out, mask the mutual pain they share as a result of their tragic secret. Albee leaves both couples’ marriages in tatters and their lives stripped bare of any protecting pretence, leaving the audience to fathom how the quartet could ever recover from this destructive night. Funny, tiring and sometimes painful to watch, Turner et al get to the heart of what makes and breaks relationships.
Anthony Page’s production is currently booking at the Apollo until 13 May.