Woolf x Three ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Woolf x Three

So here's why I've been flying along the Australian coastline like a confused fruitbat. From today's Australian, your peripatetic crrritic reports:

The phone rang. A mysterious voice crawled out of the receiver. Somebody, the voice whispered, is peddling productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All over Australia. What’s the deal?

It was a slow week. A slow year. Whatever. So I poured the rubbing alcohol down the sink and pulled out my gumshoes, and ever since I’ve been wearing a groove up and down the eastern coast, tracking down the knowledge on Edward Albee’s classic marital bloodfest.

Company B at Belvoir Street in Sydney lit the flame at the beginning of August, with an auteur production directed by Benedict Andrews. The Melbourne Theatre Company followed panting on its heels, with a season directed by Peter Evans; and finally, the Queensland Theatre Company opens today with another by Michael Gow.

Is it that the zeitgeist is zinging with Albee? Does this 40-year-old play express something urgent about our time? Or is it simply that, following hallowed Australian theatrical tradition, our major companies looked across the pond to New York?

I guess it’s a bit of both; but it’s hard not to incline to the latter theory. Main stage Australian theatre takes most of its cues from the West End and Broadway, and it’s hardly coincidental that Kathleen Turner has been starring in a celebrated Broadway revival since 2005.

And – after a certain amount of hemming and hawing and stroking of chins – it no doubt dawned on various company directors that this play is not only a classic, it is hot. And hit is, after all, a mere vowel away…

I’ve now sat through around ten hours of George, Martha and the gang; and it seems to me that, whatever the reason, all the chin-stroking was to good effect.

Woolf’s international revival is part of a late-career comeback that Albee has been enjoying since the early 1990s. After his early 1960s successes, his career trotted along nicely until everything fizzled in the 1980s, when Albee’s brand of dark, visceral mischief went out of fashion. Then, in 1991, Three Tall Women garnered him his third Pulitzer, and suddenly, like a rather cantankerous prodigal son (he turns 80 next year), Albee was back in the limelight.

Despite the compulsory homilies about relevance, topicality and so on, there’s only one real reason to put any play on. It has to be good. If it’s good, it will always be relevant.

Woolf is a great play. Given the kind of play it is, it has to be. Theatre has changed since the 1960s, but Albee hasn’t swum with the times.

As he told the LA Weekly earlier this year, Albee believes that theatre’s job is solely to interpret a writer’s vision. “The big problem,” he said, “is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act. It isn’t. It’s a creative act, and then other people come in... I’m in the lucky position where I just say, ‘Go fuck yourself; if you don’t want to do the play I wrote, do another play’.”

It’s an understandable attitude, when you consider the brutal commercial waters in which contemporary US playwrights are forced to swim: but Albee sometimes gets close to accusing theatre of being a massed conspiracy against the solitary genius of his writing. Luckily, he’s excellent at what he does.

Still, Albee’s mid-century, writer-dominant approach to theatre can give his aesthetic a fusty air. Like Arthur Miller’s plays, and unlike Shakespeare, or even the passionately lyrical plays of his contemporary Tennessee Williams, Albee’s work doesn’t easily bear radical interpretation.

Although Martin Esslin claimed Albee for the Absurdists, from this end of the telescope a play like Woolf looks more at home with, say, Death of a Salesman than with Ionesco. Its naturalistic poetic stamps its diction indelibly with its own time. The question is whether it can be reworked for the 21st century, or whether it must remain in its own, an unsettling mirror flashing out of our past.

Albee himself believes the latter. As Miller was in his lifetime, Albee is notoriously protective of his work, refusing interpretations of Woolf that compromise its 1960s setting. Benedict Andrews’ production for Belvoir Street came within a whisker of being cancelled when Albee saw the design, and was only saved by some very fast talking.

Andrews’ was by the far the most adventurous of the three productions, an aggressive attempt to drag it into the present day. It featured a gorgeously chic set, all mirrors and glass and ice, and stylised performances which at their most powerful moments revealed an unexpectedly operatic extremity in the writing. What Andrews exposed was the play’s profound theatricality.

Still, I had reservations. Despite a stunning performance of cumulatively powerful understatement from Marton Csokas as George, it suffered from uneven casting, making it clear that this play is crucially a quartet. The cool design was matched by coolly alienating direction, a slow drawing of viscera which made for a sluggish first act.

As the set disintegrated, like the respectable façades of Albee’s characters, into a smeared, tear-stained mess, Andrews exploited its reflective surfaces to create some unforgettably beautiful stage images. However, for all its style and unarguably potent moments, sometimes this production seemed histrionic rather than profound.

Albee’s dramaturgical craft is a great strength of Woolf. Such is its structural and verbal solidity, a conservative production featuring fine actors such as is offered by Michael Gow in Queensland, with Andrew McFarlane and Andrea Moor in the main roles, will always produce the goods.

Gow stages it on a minimalist set that exposes the machinery of the theatre, with naturalistic details sketched in on a steeply raked stage. The effect is interestingly pictorial, with the skewed perspectives reflecting the distorted relationships in the play.

In Scott Johnson, Gow’s production probably has the strongest Nick, who is the weakest role in the other shows. As the clean-cut biology professor who proves himself as hypocritically venal as George claims he is, Johnson is the only actor with the requisite air of veiled physical aggression.

What Gow’s production lacks, and the other two possess, is directorial flair. Certain scenes – Honey’s interpretative dance, for instance, or crucial moments between Martha and George – seem comparatively truncated, even perfunctory. It’s a production that dutifully serves the play, without quite hitting you between the eyes.

In the end, the George and Martha who stick with me are Garry McDonald and Wendy Hughes in Peter Evans’ MTC production. In Alison Bell, the MTC also featured the best performance in the role of Honey, despite some heavy competition from Robin McLeavy in Sydney.

In both productions, Honey’s drunken dance was a comic highlight, with McLeavy driving her interpretation to a perverse performance of sexualised violence. But Bell’s scream of anguish when George pitilessly skewered her in his cruel game of “Get The Guests” hit the direct nerve of genuine distress.

Such moments make me suspect that, despite its apparent conservatism – a comically heightened ‘60s design and American accents – Evans’ production might be the most slyly daring of all three.

McDonald is an unexpected George, but in his viciously tender disillusion, he gives the most raw portrayal. With Wendy Hughes as a pyrotechnically drunk and vulnerable Martha, the stink of mortality was palpable. They made the least glamorous pairing, and were also, from the opening lines, the most brutally funny.

This was the production that, as George says in the play, splintered through the bone to the marrow. It was painful from the very beginning, and by the end it laid bare the aching hollow inside the social façade.

It was the only production that wholly attained the devastation of the play’s final moment, when George and Martha clasp each other desperately against their loneliness, turning to face an empty and uncertain dawn.

And at the end of my quest, I think I’ve found the answer to the mystery of our affair with Albee. It’s as simple – and as complex – as love and pain.

You can’t have one without the other. That’s Albee’s unpalatable and liberating truth. And as long as human beings are around in all their gloriously contradictory messiness, that truth is always going to strike us where it hurts.

TN's review of the MTC production


Anonymous said...

A classic play with only four characters. Cheap to produce. Sadly, that is a principal reason for so many productions.

Anonymous said...


very interested to read your comparative reviews of these three productions in The Australian. I only saw the MTC production, but had been impressed by the reviews of Andrews' direction in Sydney. One thing which stood out for me was the use of Australian vernacular accents - I wish more productions would do this. It avoids introducing a foreignness which is not implicit in the original script, and gives a play a more univeral outlook (despite Albee's insistence on fixing his text in 1960s America).
I agree with you that Alison Bell was a highlight in Melbourne, and am intrigued that you found MacDonald and Hughes the best duo. Only wish I could have seen the others.
Incidentally, this was one of the productions I criticised in an Opinion Piece in the Age [http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/lets-raise-the-curtain-on-fresh-thinking/2007/09/23/1190486129804.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1], as demonstrating a conservative directorial approach to revivals at MTC. I would be interested in opinion on this.

Cheers, Martin Ball

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Martin - nice to see you here! The Andrews production was certainly worth seeing, and it's brilliant his Season at Sarsaparilla is coming down our way (I thought it completely stunning and can't wait to see it again). I saw your piece and didn't have the vim to comment as I might have otherwise - as you may know, I'm broadly in agreement with you on the general lack of directorial chutzpah at the MTC (nice crack on the Museum Theatre Company!) compared to the STC.

On the other hand, I found myself increasingly fond of Evans' production of Woolf as I reflected on the other two. When I saw it, I thought it had a bit of a subtle twist on the naturalism - everything a bit heightened - and my very ambivalent response to the set seemed to be a response to an impulse that maybe wasn't quite as conservative as it looked. I became very fond for instance of Alison Bell's ridiculous dress. I had a couple of quibbles with some details, but in the end it was certainly the one that for me had the deepest emotional impact (that includes the Taylor/Burton film btw, which I also dutifully watched - I think I'll be quite happy to watch other plays for some years now).

Alison Croggon said...

Btw, here's a live link to Martin's MTC opinion piece in the Age.

Anonymous said...

I saw The Andrews play and I thought it was amazing. Shakeel.