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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Liza Dezfouli

National Theatre Live does justice to Edward Albee's classic. If only he'd been able to see it...
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

US playwright Edward Albee’s demonically funny and disturbing three-act play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was first produced in 1962 at the Billy Rose Theatre in New York. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama yet was deemed too unsettling and controversial to be awarded. It's still shocking now.

An academic couple for whom mind-fucking is a blood sport trap a younger, naïve, up-and-coming pair, Nick and Honey (Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots) late one night in a nightmare of drunken venom. George (Conleth Hill) holds his post in the history department of a New England University due to the fact that his wife Martha (Imelda Staunton, in an unforgettable turn) is the Dean's daughter. George has long disappointed Martha with his lack of ambition and advancement, and she won't let him forget it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? goes on for three hours, astonishing when you think it comprises only one couple’s prolonged fight, with another couple, having stumbled into the firing line, becoming targets. The play feels contemporary after 54 years because most of us wouldn’t dare to bludgeon each other with the sorts of truths Martha and George do; perhaps we may secretly long to let rip into our partners when we’re drunk but couples in polite society don’t usually go this far with others around. What happens on stage here still makes you gasp with its cruelty. The dialogue is witty (a line from George: "our son … the apple of our three eyes, Martha being a Cyclops…"), the pacing superb, and thrills come too, from wondering just how far Martha and George will go? To the death, we presume…

Direction is by James McDonald. Staging is conventional; no need to mess with aesthetics, time setting or to re-imagine or de/reconstruct this classic. Everyone is so damn fine in performance it’s hard to know what to say about this production. The cast is stunning and well-matched, accents never slip.

Hill is the intelligent and urbane, quietly vulnerable yet contained George; when he does ‘lose it’ things get scary and even more unpredictable. Staunton’s Martha is splendidly vicious, both sexually brittle and powerful, raucous and relentlessly destructive. The scene where she ‘shares’ with Nick comes as a timely relief to her loudness elsewhere. Treadaway and Poots are gorgeous, perfect as golden couple Nick and Honey. Poots has been awarded some kind of ‘best drunk performance’ gong from UK reviewers. Treadaway, of course, established himself as a heavy-weight actor playing the lead in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night, a National Theatre Live production from a few years ago.

Watching this version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made me completely forget about the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film, quite something when you remember how powerful that was. You come away from this almost as wrung out, ill and hungover as poor Honey.

Albee was one of the great talents who died last year; what a pity he couldn't have seen this practically perfect production of his revered drama.

4 ½ stars out of 5

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
National Theatre Live 
Direction by James McDonald
Martha: Imelda Staunton
George: Conleth Hill
Honey; Imogen Poots
Nick: Luke Treadaway
Running time: 3 hours including a 15 minute interval and short pause between Acts 2 and 3

In Australian cinemas on 19 August
Visit Sharmill Films for a list of participating cinemas

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews live performance and film. She's an avid arts glutton who's consistently thrilled by the talent abounding in this good city of Melbourne.

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