Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Queensland Theatre and The State Theatre Company South Australia)
QPAC, The Playhouse
February 12 – 28
Those who know Edward Albee’s provocative Tony Award-winning play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof?” know it is one of many words. For those who don’t, this is emphasised by the staging of Queensland Theatre and The State Theatre Company South Australia co-production from the curtain-up reveal of handwritten graffiti that walls about the stage. ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ it asks over and over again, or is that the big bad world we wonder as we read down through its fun and games mention. (The featured play’s title is a pun on the song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ from Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs”, with substitution of the celebrated author’s name.)
The living room space within the graffiti walls, has its own barriers, appropriately see-through given that all is about to be laid bare. Symbolism abounds as a glass-encased mask, rather than painting, of distorted reality, occupies a central position. With a well-stocked drinks trolly also on display, it is all very bright and modern and hardly worthy of Martha’s in-jest assessment of it as ‘a dump’. And while the artwork’s dominance does serve as distraction at times, it is apt that when the story opens to its frustrated middle-aged married couple protagonists, George (Jimi Bani) and Martha (Susan Prior), they are seated apart and separated by it.
Associate Professor History George and the College President’s daughter Martha have just arrived home from a party at their small New England College. Martha may be a remarkable woman according to her husband’s jest, but as she embarks upon a 2am bang-on about a Bette Davis film, she is almost immediately unlikeable. Savage-tongued and calculating, she initiates an insult trade with George who initially retaliates with a passive aggressive approach. There is a natural banter to the couple’s early dialogue as they await the arrival of their new-to-town guests, young new Biology faulty member Nick (Rashidi Edward) and his wife Honey (Juanita Navas-Nguyen), however, any veneer is soon stripped away as they move into the psychological cat-and-mouse ‘games’ that typify their complex relationship.
When Martha crosses the line by breaking their rule of talking to Honey about their son, drunken revelations and recriminations slip them into ‘humiliate the host’ and ‘get the guest’ mode, catalysing towards a shocking conclusion of unearthed demons, all for the sake of conflict. Helping this along, Andrew Howard’s sound composition and design pounds us towards the intensity of each act’s toxic climax. And Nigel Levings’ lighting design artfully illuminates the living room arguments when George and Nick retreat inside from an outside chat, and warms us into the 4am dance that represents the realisation of Marta’s flirtation with Nick while his humiliated, naïve and ill-equipped-for-drinking wifelet sleeps on the bathroom floor.
Everybody drinks at George and Martha’s and anybody going there gets testy, George reflects to Nick. And as things progress we see the truth of this, with devastating consequences as each act we see more walls being lifted, both physically and figuratively and 23 years of marriage being snapped into a declaration of war.
A classic of this calibre demands a strong cast and in this regard the performers certainly all rise to the challenge. While Edward and Navas-Nguyen are solid in their support, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is all about the story’s central sparring partners George and Maratha, who will even argue over if the moon is out. Prior’s Martha is loud, vulgar, spoiled and self-indulgent. And in her domineer of everyone with her vindictive blame-filled manipulation, she is incredibly dynamic. Indeed, it is a credit to Prior that she is able to make her so sustainably unlikable as she graduates to mocking George’s failings in Act Two, yet also allow us some insight into her emotional state during an alone-on-stage early Act Three monologue that this is tempered with a sad vulnerability. Jimi Bani, similarly, makes the essentially miserable George the more likeable of the pair, but also, increasingly, almost without us noticing, cruel towards others. He is at his best perhaps in Act One, where he engages as a natural storyteller, dancing his drink around and telling tales with the right mount of exaggeration, humour and comic timing to engage newly-welcomed Nick, and, by proxy, the audience.
Edward Albee’s iconic tale of marital dysfunction is certainly a wordy one, with lots of dense, ferocious dialogue and especially Bani and Prior deliver marathon performances, befitting the behemoth of a script. While the writing may be clever, however, it is, at times, almost self-indulgent in its verbosity. The epic three-act play (performed here with two intervals) packs a punch, but is exhausting in its intensity. And while it has some humour, it is far from a fun work.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a classic of the stage that every theatre lover should see at least once, albeit maybe with an earlier start-time or not on a school night, given the shared audience struggle with its duration. When it premiered in New York in 1962 it shocked audiences and became an instant classic and as this fresh new production shows, 60 years later, the verbal sparring of the couples still stings just as much.
Photos c/o – Brett Boardman