REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” – Virginia Woolf writing in her diary, as she turned 40

It’s two in the morning when George, a history professor, and his wife Martha – the daughter of the President of the university where George works – arrive home from one of her father’s boozy soirees. They’re both drunk and arguing about a movie that Martha can’t remember the name of. The back and forth about that sets them off and they are quickly throwing insults and invective at each other. It’s harsh. It’s cruel.

Soon, another couple arrives – Nick, a biology professor at the same university, and his wife, Honey. They are twenty years younger than George and Martha, and are quickly shocked and embarrassed by the older couple’s arguing and verbal abuse. Nick wants to make a good impression on his boss’ daughter. Martha has been asked to play nice, but that doesn’t seem to be in her wheelhouse. It’s going to be a long night.

Edward Albee’s play first premiered on Broadway in 1962 and was later adapted into a film starring real-life husband and wife, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

This new production, directed by Sarah Goodes, first premiered at Red Stitch’s Actor’s Theatre last year – starring real-life husband and wife, Kat Stewart and David Whiteley, long-time members of the Red Stitch ensemble.

I missed seeing the show at the Actor's Theatre’s 80-seat venue but can imagine this play would have been even more of a pressure-cooker in such an intimate space. On stage at the 1000-seat Comedy Theatre, it’s still a confronting experience. The three-and-a-half-hour play (with two intervals) is an endurance, trapped with these characters, who are afraid not of Woolf, but of revealing too much of themselves.

While the programming at Red Stitch is mostly new work, occasionally they will revive a classic – and make it their own. This time, under the consummate direction of Goodes, with an outstanding cast, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is vital and engaging and the leap to a large commercial venue feels like the right step after their previous sold-out season.

Goodes and production designer, Harriet Oxley, have amped up the theatricality of George and Martha’s game playing by surrounding the playing space with curtains. The characters begin in one of the boxes at the theatre, staring down at the stage they have set for the night ahead. Once they stumble through the auditorium and take their place under the proscenium, they are there for the long haul. It’s a smart way of acknowledging how much the older couple have set the cogs in motion for what is to happen next. This isn’t uncontrolled rage between them. It’s rehearsed and choreographed. We slowly learn that their arguments are a kind of theatre they are hiding behind.

Kat Stewart’s Martha is a striking creation, spitting and clawing at her husband and taking swipes at Nick and Honey along the way. Her energy is aggressive throughout; she’s explicitly sexual toward the young man, but this production gives her an insatiable attraction to Honey, too.

David Whiteley’s George is whip-smart and pedantic and a total match in his verbal sparring with Stewart’s Martha. But he’s also very convincing in those moments of gentleness he uses to reel in Nick and keep him on side. And when his façade starts to break in act three, Whiteley shows us George coming apart physically and emotionally. You can see the weight of the truth bearing down on him throughout the show.

Harvey Zielinksi’s Nick is the brash youngster, firm in his convictions and unfazed by George misremembering what he teaches. When they later go toe-to-toe over George’s insistence that this biologist wants to make everyone the same, there’s an intellectual tension added to the room that was missing from earlier vindictive battles.

Emily Goddard’s Honey isn’t shy, per se, but she does spend a lot of time observing rather than attacking. She’s full of energy though, and her solo dance sequence is astonishing for being so funny and also gobsmacking. Honey seems a lot more naïve than the other characters, but there is damage at her core too and Goddard is able to bring that out subtly at first and then in waves.

For much of the show, I wondered what this sixty-year-old play had to say to the here-and-now. I tried to map on modern diagnoses to the maladies that plague them all. But while I think what Albee is saying about being haunted by the past and trapped in a marriage feels true, the long-con game-playing is very much a conceit you have to buy into. On the page, it might read like naturalism, but it’s not. And Red Stitch’s remarkable production is smart enough to play up the fantasy in a story where everyone is lying to each other and themselves. About their histories and their present.

Red Stitch has had a strong year at their own theatre space. It’s a small jewel in the Melbourne theatrical landscape. While they have toured shows in the past, this is the first time one of their productions has transfered to such a large venue. They deserve all the praise for gathering the best theatre makers in Melbourne for their own season and bringing this classic to the Comedy Theatre for larger audiences to experience the magic they make at their St Kilda home all the time.

This is a remarkable achievement, with a first-rate cast in a production that will stay with me for a long time.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is running in Melbourne until July 21. Tickets on sale now

Photos by Eugene Hyland