Though Edward Albee’s 1966 Pulitzer-winning play contains its share of explosions – its brandished pistols, emotional meltdowns and yodelling alcoholics – it’s a prairie of a play, its characters pickled in drink and flat-lined by their fears. Given the chance of connecting with one another, of living, with all its risks, they curl into themselves and raise immaculate masks to their faces.
Tobias and Agnes lead well-appointed lives in their comfortable East Coast home, a cocoon of dark wood and leather-bound books. One son died in infancy and their other child, Julia, now in her thirties, is about to notch up her fourth divorce; this marital bust up has prompted a return to the parental home, a plot device that these days has an extra frisson of relevance, but for her, it is clearly part of an on-going pattern. Agnes’ sister, Claire, meanwhile drinks like a fish with a taste for the hard stuff; her drinking, she claims, is not alcoholism, but a demonstration of will and – by the play’s end – she’s not alone in indulging in a little tipple before breakfast.
The measured world of Tobias and Agnes is disturbed further by the arrival of their best friends, Harry and Edna. This middle-aged couple have been seized by an unspecified terror; they offer no explanation for their sudden fear – it’s far more potent left unexpressed, unpinned to any one thing – they simply say they are scared and they expect their friends to help them. But they encroach, this couple, they taint the place like coffee spreading through a sugar cube and replacing the crystalline white with muddy brown. Their presence, as the ever eloquent Agnes says, is like an infection. Harry and Edna are bringers of disease, a metaphor undermined only slightly by the sickness that was evidently present in the house before their arrival.
There’s something sinister and Pinter-esque about these interlopers, trailing their mini-mushroom cloud of fear, but James Macdonald’s elegant, stately production avoids overplaying this aspect of Albee’s many layered play. And while his approach is perhaps a little over-stretched and over-reverent, he draws out the bitter humour of the writing and is rewarded by some incredibly strong performances from his cast.
Penelope Wilton has a cold, calm presence as Agnes, poised and posed, carefully weighing and pacing her words as she speaks and never letting – or at least not appearing to let – anything penetrate her shell. Imelda Staunton has a suitable hardness as Claire, a snifter of brandy never far from her hand. There’s a frequent note of anger present in her voice even when she is ‘acting up’ or trying to diffuse (or enhance?) the tension with her accordion; occasionally she slowly and decorously arranges herself on the rug, as if to remain vertical was too much of a demand.
As Julia, Lucy Cohu’s performance is an exercise in decline, from a sophisticated woman to a squalling, foot-stamping brat in a matter of minutes; her cries on finding that her childhood bedroom is now otherwise occupied, have the shrill, frantic sound of a toddler denied its own way. In comparison, Diana Hardcastle’s Edna evolves from a tearful and quivering figure in an expensive coat, to a controlled, almost menacing, woman who quietly dominates things. As Tobias, Tim Pigott-Smith’s eventual – and possibly inevitable – collapse is somewhat overshadowed.
The final scene takes place on the Sunday morning of this turbulent weekend, the characters all in their dressing gowns and pyjamas, stripped of one further protective layer (only Agnes, resplendent in a turquoise silk robe, manages to look dressed even when she is not). But as Laura Hopkins’ tasteful but oppressive set is bathed in the thin, sickly dawn light, there’s little sense of hope or resolution, just of a continual creeping chill, an unbridgeable distance.