While making conversation with her guests, Martha, a fast-talking intellectual discussing gender issues with near-erotic intensity, makes a confession. “I’m a horrible person,” she says, oddly self-assured. This mightn’t have been expected of the same Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, who loses the upper hand when reminded she can’t conceive a child. But in Kate Scelsa’s magnificently surreal comedy, if that makes her awful, so be it.
Written for Elevator Repair Service’s terrific ensemble, Scelsa’s reworking of Albee’s drama is still set in the home of a warring college professor and his wife, but embraces more of the irony: if their names allude to America’s founders, why not name them Martha and George Washington? If guests Nick and Honey are there to push for a promotion, why be shy about it?
Within seconds of her arrival, Annie McNamara’s quicksilver Martha brushes past several plot points and character notes, as if to bring the hidden resentments and imaginary presences from the previous drama into light. That’s an interesting coincidence; after The Lost O’Casey, The Misfits and The Patient Gloria, Martha isn’t the first woman at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival to feel like she’s been here before.
Reinvention is to be found everywhere here, in director John Collins’s excellent production. George, made diva-like by Vin Knight, lounges about like a Southern Belle. Gavin Price’s Nick reveals a passion for slash fiction and its gay characters. Even the unfailingly polite Honey, in April Matthis’s well-judged performance, gets a moment to detest her suburban-wife life.
The script hums with smart non sequiturs, pop cultural references and meta-theatrical lines (characters will sooner retreat into the gender-problematic worlds of Tennessee Williams rather than hang around here). It may sound quite the departure but, impressively, Albee’s mind games and comforting illusions are still in here.
That leaves the play resembling both a radical response and a tribute. Martha still has the rage, and uses it to demand that her achievements be recognised as opposed to her fertility. But Scelsa also alludes to present concerns; only in the weird world of Nick’s supernatural poetry, for instance, does consent and eternal love seem to be validated.
This seems like new ground not only for Elevator Repair Service – a company making rigorous interpretations of American literature – but for anyone looking to address the male-authored canon. After a striking collapse of Louisa Thompson’s living room set, and the arrival of a paranormal PhD student (Lindsay Hockaday), come profound words about women. They should be written about as if they’re in the audience, no less than they’re in society.
Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf is on at Dublin Theatre Festival until 7th October. More info here.