Sometime around November last year, I was scanning my inbox when an e-mail came through: instantly my heart skipped a beat, I messaged my housemates and grabbed my credit card. Edward Albee’s infamous Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was coming to London with none other than Imelda Staunton as the lead. As a huge contemporary drama lover, I could barely contain my excitement, I could finally see the 60’s masterpiece laid out before me on the stage.
Although I had previously studied the play and watched the famous Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton performance on film, nothing really prepared me for the sheer electric atmosphere that ran through The Harold Pinter Theatre in London last night. You could feel the ripples run throughout the audience as Imelda Staunton took her first steps onto the stage, signifying the start of the drama.
The play was split into three acts, each depicting a different part of the night. It opens with Martha (Staunton) and George (Hill) coming home from a drinks party. Later they are joined by Nick (Treadway) and Honey (Poots), whom Martha has invited over for drinks. The rest of the play takes place throughout the night as drinks are consumed and secrets are revealed.
Raw Humanity at its Most Brutal
All four actors gave an incredible performance, with electric chemistry running throughout their dialogue. From George and Nick’s repetitive exchanges to Honey’s carefully placed comments to the constant savagery between George and Martha. The first two acts cleverly build on the insecurities and masks that we, as humans, cloak ourselves in, with the characters expertly playing on each other in the most destructive way possible.
Both acts are brutally honest, with each scene stripping off another layer from each character. Hill delivers an astounding performance throughout, reminding us all of the power of simple words and more importantly how a pause can change the ambiance of a room instantly. By the end of the penultimate act, Albee has us all asking the question: are we all just crazy? And yet, according to Albee it’s the only way to escape:
Martha: “Tis’ the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weighs too heavy on our tiny heads”
By the third act the characters have successfully stripped back and peeled off each other’s layers so that what’s left are their true selves; the games have been played and the props used. The characters are left bare, and to an extent naked in front of each other and the audience, no longer able to hide behind their facades. The play ends with one of contemporary drama’s biggest reveals and here is where Staunton shows her incredible ability to captivate, allowing the emotion of the scene to speak directly to the audience.
The performance deserves every single star it’s given. It’s clever dialogue and witty rhetoric is intended to invoke the deepest emotion within us and MacDonald’s direction is second to none. When the curtain fell on Staunton and Hill, I looked around: to my right a woman with silent tears running down my her cheeks and behind me a man unable to speak. This was Albee’s intention when writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it is a clear and stark depiction of raw humanity with no labels and with nowhere to hide. This performance encapsulates that and much more – go and see it!
Tickets are still available here