Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by Ben Grant. With Alison Bell, Wendy Hughes, Garry McDonald and Stephen Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centreu, ntil October 6. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

Edward Albee’s savage lullabye Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reminds you that the Elizabethans enjoyed their theatre in the interludes between bear-baiting. Four decades after it was first staged, it remains an inimitable piece of theatrical bloodsport.

It is also one of the most disturbing love stories ever written: Martha and George give vivid life to the old saw that hatred is the other face of love. Their dysfunctional marriage is – quite literally – a performance that brings to the surface the demons that seethe beneath the conventions of middle-class career and marriage. And they prove that nothing is funnier than cruelty.

From the moment the play opens, we know it’s a fight to the death. It is 2am, and failed history academic George (Garry McDonald) and his wife Martha (Wendy Hughes) are returning home after a boozy evening at the faculty. Martha has invited the new couple in town, blond wunderkind Nick (Stephen Phillips) and his daffy wife Honey (Alison Bell) over for a nightcap.

What follows is a nightmare few hours of social evisceration. Albee’s script is an elegant machine that pitilessly peels open the ugliness of inter-generational and sexual warfare. As copious slugs of alcohol make them progressively more legless, the naïve young couple turn out to be not so naïve, after all: in the end, they are less innocent than their hosts.

Honey and Nick’s relationship, at first glance an untainted thing compared to the alcohol-soaked boxing match that seems to constitute their hosts’ marriage, is at once more and less than it seems. Nick is as unprincipled in his ambition and greed as George claims he is, and Honey is neurotically unhappy, concealing even from herself her knowledge that her marriage is loveless.

Finally George and Martha are left alone to face the abyss that remains once illusion is destroyed, their lives poised on a fulcrum between terror and hope. Nick and Honey, on the other hand, will not admit their inner emptiness. Towards the end of the play, in one of its most quietly cutting lines, Honey tells her husband: “I don’t remember anything. And you don’t remember anything, either.”

Director Peter Evans gives us the play, like Martha’s alcohol, straight. It’s an honest reading that leaves it in its time and place, complete with American accents. His production discreetly foregrounds the artifice of apparent naturalism: the performances are big, taking full advantage of the inherent theatricality of Albee’s writing, and they're viciously funny. Three and a half hours whizz past.

There were trivial things that caught like burrs in my perceptions as I watched the show. I sometimes felt that Matt Scott’s lighting design was a tad obvious, bringing the lights down on “important” moments, rather like the camera in a current affairs show zooming in for a voyeuristic close-up at the critical moment of grief. And the sound design, spartan as it is, sometimes seemed similarly unsubtle.

Christina Smith’s design is intriguing. I spent half the play hating the set, and half the play liking it; rather like its major characters, I guess. An uncomfortable compromise between abstraction and naturalism, it’s a semi-circular stage in front of a flat of empty bookshelves done out in a ugly natural woodgrain, with a pair of antlers sticking out aggressively on the right. Yet often my discomfort with its ugliness felt wholly appropriate. It’s an ugly story, after all, and the design offers no assuaging escapism.

The set does have the paramount virtue of unobstrusively and intimately framing some superb performances: and the performances are the heart of this play. Wendy Hughes’s brassy Martha emerges from a ferocious disillusionment and despair. She is perhaps more tragic than Elizabeth Taylor’s famous performance in the film, because she lacks Taylor’s louche sexiness; it throws a darker shadow over her seduction of Nick, and his later impotence. And Phillips gives a complex and subtle portrayal of Nick that only lacks a little aggression and edge.

Garry McDonald's bravura performance of George – embittered, disillusioned, humiliated and vicious – finds the tenderness that lurks inside George’s cruelty without crossing the line into sentimentality. And Alison Bell’s portrayal of Honey is brilliant: in her hands, the car accident that is Honey is no minor role, but a tragic journey into anaesthesia.

My only real complaint is how Melbourne audiences begin to clap the very instant the stage goes dark at the end of the play. What I wanted, after the last scene’s final devastating admission, was a breath of silence in which those lines could resonate, ripening to their full meaning. But there’s nothing the MTC can do about that.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian. Link if and when it appears.


Bardassa said...

Not a book in sight, save for the one that George fishes out of the hole in the living room floor. Pretty wierd for a college professor of such long tenure to have floor to ceiling bookcases (in untreated and unpainted 'Calamity Jane's cabin' style timber and not have a single book on them.

I also felt that as Gary McD. was nearlt twenty years too old for the part he should have swapped with Robert Menzies. Imagine Menzies as George!

Alison Croggon said...

The empty shelves didn't bother me; after all, it's clearly not a literal set, and the empty shelves held their own symbolism. Nor was I bothered by McDonald's age; after all, he mentions several times he looks older than he is, and I thought his performance very impressive. Menzies as George? Fascinating thought: he'd be very different. At least his talent wouldn't be wasted, like it is in Rayson's play.

Bardassa said...

he's actually the best thing in Rayson's play now.

I agree about the time not dragging in WAOVW too, Act 1 just whizzed past (I guess on the expectation of the night of the long knives that are drawn in Act 2). pity they cut the little scene between George and Honey at the end of Act 2 though. It helps understand Honey's joining with George in the Requiem to bury their non-existant children.

PS, Heard about Richard Watts?

J-Lo said...

Interesting to read that a scene was cut - I've read this twice in last 18mths [once as part of a monthly 'play reading group'] and I did get a feeling [from Tuesday's preview] that a few threads were missing (isn't there something about Honey thinking she heard the Western Union man?)

Agree with TN re: slight lack of final 'click' with Nick and far too overt lighting [but again, on preview night - though at $54 a seat . . .]

I enjoyed it, but had high expectations which were probably only partially met.

Alison Croggon said...

I actually have a feeling that in a week or two, all going well, it'll be great. It's a very big play and incredibly detailed, there's a lot of nuance to get right.

I suspect that cut might be Albee's own, they don't use the published version but the one with the proper profane language.

Heard what about Richard?! Nothing bad, I hope.

J-Lo said...

Am I being unreasonably grumbly about the price of a preview?

naive theatre goer said...

I loved it. Despite being almost 3.5 hours, the first two acts whizzed by, and my flagging a touch in the third act was more a reflection of my finishing up a very long day than of the play.

I haven't been that big a fan of Garry McDonald in the past (either stage or TV) but I thought he was great in this. Issues about his age hadn't occurred to me but maybe that's because bald guys always seem to be of indeterminate age to me.

Alison Bell's opening scenes were a knockout, instantly creating a vivid impression of Honey and then Bell brilliantly developed the character from there.

If I had to nitpick, it might be that at times I didn't find Wendy Hughes as convincingly savage as I might have hoped. I was thinking later that someone like (say) Judy Davis might have done some of that more convincingly but maybe someone like that wouldn't have been as good in other ways. As I said, this is nitpicking, Hughes was very good.

Alison Croggon said...

Am I being unreasonably grumbly about the price of a preview?

I don't think so, J-Lo, it's expensive. That's to do with funding issues as well; they can't afford to price them more cheaply, and it all makes theatre less accessible. (I reckon ticket prices are a huge part of that question).

Just for comparison: in well-funded France, you can see shows at the Theatre de Ville (the biggest mainstream theatre in Paris, where they are staging Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Anton Tchekov and, uh, Daniel Keene) for 15 euro (about $20). The most expensive tickets are 23 euro, at around $37.

Alison Croggon said...

PS While I'm on this jag - the Theatre de Ville also has a youth tariff - not a student or unemployed ticket, but for anyone under 28 - for 12 euro. (At Theatre de la Commune, a CDN, which is kind of theatre around the size of the Malthouse - they have a youth rate of 7 euro!)

Mind you, this all could change under Sarkozy. But it does mean that the theatres are not scratching around for audiences - almost without exception, all the shows I've seen in France have been packed.

Bardassa said...

AC said "I actually have a feeling that in a week or two, all going well, it'll be great."
I agree, Bell will just keep getting better and better and Hughes will loosen up (she isn't quite vunerable enough in the final scenes - I was expecting a total meltdown with Nick almost unable to hold her either back or upright. Any maybe everyone will stop drifting downstage every time they have more than a two sentences to say.

And on funding - Don't the MTC get a fairly hefty allowance from Melbourne Uni as well?

Bardassa said...

Regarding Richard W. "Who's Who" or "Debretts" or one of those refenece books that lists notables has asked to inclde him.

Alison Croggon said...

Dash it, they haven't asked me. I will curtsey next time we meet. I do make Who's Who in 20th Century World Poetry, tho...:)

Bardassa said...

Alison, you also made "The Currency Companion to Australian Theatre" (but it was in relation to the 'you know what' affair.

BTW "naive theatre goer" You are an interesting guy/girl

Art said...

I was at a forum earlier in the year in which Albee was directly asked about the recent cuts:

Albee was quick to point out that, "no play has a right to be anything, but entertaining." When asked about why for the 2005 production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he cut a powerful scene between George and Honey, Albee said that it was not for reasons of brevity, or really of any consideration of the audience. He said that he ALWAYS felt the Act NEEDED to end earlier.

That's from my notes of the forum.

Bardassa said...

I thought it was strange to just cut the scene of George telling Honey about the 'son' being dead. The MTC production seems to be playing it so literally and, in my understanding of the play and this production, concluding that Honey is going to go on to be the 'George' (a quiet, unasuming and riduclous seeming stooge but the ringmaster) in her relationship with Nick (who will, the 'Martha', the sexually predatory and eventually self defeating and self deluding older half)and, even though she is way drunk and badly humiliated relizes that she, like George can control her partner with the phantom child.

I also like to think that if Albee could see Alison Bell he would restore the cut and even write her more scenes.

Anna said...

It's interesting that there are at least three professional stagings of this play in Australia this year - MTC, Belvoir and QTC.

Lima said...

I also saw a preview show and thought that it lacked venom. i felt that they had the comedy right but it needed to be balanced more with the danger and sex that is so beautifully woven into the play. As wonderful an actor as Gary McDonald is, I found he deflected a lot. Many moments were delivered "indirectly"; head down, loking around the space. There was rarely a sense of targeting Martha and shooting to kill, if you know what I mean. I think for the play to work the audience needs to feels like shouting out "stop! Don't go on, I can't bear it!". I never really felt there was any danger. Nor did I think that the characters were truthfully hurt by the game they were playing. Wendy Hughes did some great drunk acting, but it meant she was constantly moving. I really wanted some judicious moments of stillness from her so that she could allow me in to her characters story/struggle. But all of these things could be turned around pretty quickly, and, as I say, i saw a preview, so it might be a different show now.

Bardassa said...

When George targets Honey, especially as the hint that Honey's phnatom pregnancy was actually an abortion and that she has a fear of pregnancy (all in that cut scene) I wanted to shout "Stop" that's enough, Hiney is not Martha - she can't take it (yet).

Jonathan Shaw said...

Sydney lurker here: I don't suppose there's any chance of your getting to see the Belvoir production, Alison. It restored my faith in live theatre, which had been taking a huge beating recently (I walked out of Company at interval, etc.)

Henry Grebler said...

You might want to correct the introductory paragraph: you have Wendy Hughes twice and have omitted Stephen Phillips.

Henry Grebler said...

... Honey's phnatom pregnancy was actually an abortion ...

I saw it last night and it seems that scene has been restored.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jonathan - yes, very luckily for me, I will get to see it, under the aegis of the Australian, so blogging it might have to wait. I've heard brilliant things, so I'm very excited.

And thanks for the correction, Henry. In the absence of subs, TN's best efforts do sometimes have mistakes, curses curses. I'll fix it up pronto. I wonder, was the scene restored? The phantom pregnancy/abortion issue is still in the play, even without that scene.