I’m not particularly afraid of Virginia Woolf, but I sure am scared of Conleth Hill, and Imelda Staunton terrifies the pants off me. They are both chillingly superb in James MacDonald’s harrowing new production, lacing the late Edward Albee’s portrait of marital dysfunctionality with a galling, stomach-churning viciousness and a bitter, bone-dry wit. Sitting through three hours of their relentless war is the theatrical equivalent of going nine rounds with Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko at the same time. It’s a punishing, exhausting, but unmissable experience.
It’s 2am in the morning. Staunton’s Martha and Hill’s George – the names are no coincidence – arrive back home from a faculty party at the private New England college Martha’s father runs and George teaches History at, intent on descending into one of their ritualistic marital battles before dawn. This time, Martha has dragged Nick (Luke Treadaway) and Honey (Imogen Poots), a young couple newly arrived on campus, back with them. Drinks are constantly being poured; insults are constantly being flung; twisted, vindictive games are constantly being played.
Staunton will steal the headlines, and deservedly so. She is a Martha to remember: a wild-eyed, cackling banshee of a woman, a ruthless general in her own living room war, who seems to fight with her withering looks and imperious hand gestures as much as her scorn and vanishing sexuality. It’s a bit like Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler has grown up and moved to America. The baleful flicker in her eye as she needles George – over his lack of a career, over his failed attempt to write a novel, over his various humiliations at her hands – burns with corruscating spite. Playing by her rules, Martha vs George isn’t some high-minded battle of wits, but an ugly, after-hours pub-fight, with smashed bottles and naked aggression. One empathises with George entirely: please, God, make her stop.
For me, though, it’s Hill’s performance that makes the play. Shuffling and slouching his way around Tom Pye’s plushly furnished set, he manages to simultaneously evoke a man of daring, darting intellect and deep, deep self-loathing. His George gives as good as he gets from Martha, but whereas she attacks with all-out, indiscrimatory firepower – “like a Gatling gun”, she uncannily likens – he does so with stealth and cunning and precision. And he earns the bulk of the play’s laughs, too, with his sharp comebacks and incisive put-downs, all delivered with a world-wearied blitheness. “Show her where we keep the euphemism?” he drawls, after Poots’ Honey excuses herself to powder her nose.
Treadaway and Poots provide decent, if not electrifying support. He is a smarmy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed varsity quarter-back-turned-Biology-lecturer; she is his dainty, ditzy bride, beginning to detect the glimmers of frustration and resentment in her husband. Caught in the crossfire of George and Martha’s conflict, they are helpless, utilised variously as weapons, as playthings, as sexual toys, and as sacrificial lambs. They are us, in a way, horrified by the Stasi torture chamber of a marriage laid bare before them, but strangely compelled by it as well, unable to tear themselves away.
Endless reimagination comes with the territory when a play is as widely-performed and well-known as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, but what MacDonald does here, together with Hill and Staunton, is strip the drama down to its essence. Albee’s play has been interpreted as a political allegory about the wilfully illusioned American middle-class, as a treatise on the infectious nature of discord, and as a theatrical experiment toying with reality and deception. MacDonald cuts all this largely away, choosing instead to strike at the piece’s emotional core. He presents a vivid portrait of a jaded husband and wife surviving only off the contempt they feel for one another, and in the final, devastating act, with the pale light of the rising sun bleeding through the curtains and all four warriors slumped, exhausted and excoriated over their empty glasses of brandy and bourbon, he arrives at the bold, essential question: how can we trick ourselves into living, when we have nothing to live for?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is on until 27th May 2017 at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Click here for more details.