This article is also available to read on The Yorker.
The recent National Theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was something of a revelation for me. When brilliant writing, acting and direction all come together like that, it’s difficult not to be affected by it. I’m now even more in awe of the bottle format than ever before. And I think I have a new favourite modern play.
The thing that works so well about the bottle format (having a whole story take place within on location) is you get to sink your teeth into character. In TV, bottle episodes were often used to fill a series when the budget was running low as they only required one set (you may recall Breaking Bad‘s ‘Fly’ in season 3) and often don’t amount to much, but on stage and in film it is always intentional. From Hitchcock’s greats Rear Window and Rope, to Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, to modern films such as Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and even my favourite episode of Doctor Who, ‘Midnight’, it invites us to sit down and settle in with the characters, drawing us into their narrative.
Writer Edward Albee perfects the art in this play. An intricate dance between four personalities, it’s no wonder Who’s Afraid…? has been revived so many times since its debut in 1962. The staging in James MacDonald’s version hasn’t changed from the original as it worked so effectively; the location, characters Martha and George’s living room, fills the stage. The centre of the stage is a step down from the edges, which acts as a boxing ring. Whenever a character steps into the ring, they engage in a round.
And what rounds. Albee wrings every possible emotion out of the situation, and the actors get every drop across to the audience. Each act digs further and further into the suppressed depths of George and Martha’s marriage, and each act brings a more stunning performance from the pair, played by Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton.
If you’ve heard anything about this production, you’ve probably heard about Imelda Stanton; she’s the centre of the marketing campaign and she’s been applauded by critics across the board. Deservedly so. Martha is feisty, frustrated, bitter, desperate, lustful and so much more. Staunton is a force to be reckoned with. However, although the audience can understand her throughout the first two acts, we don’t fully empathise until the third and final act. This is when Staunton comes into her own. The first two acts consist of a lot of nuanced shouting and throwing herself about, which I imagine may have had more impact within the theatre rather than through the barrier of a screen. But the reason she keeps up the bullishness is because Martha takes so long to break. She starts act 3 on her own, drunkenly navigating her thoughts. The change in tone is immediately noticeable, and what follows is the kind of performance that holds everyone in the audience, screen or no screen, right through to the end.
As incredible as Staunton was, the real star for me was her counterpart, Conleth Hill. George is a meticulous character, having the most scenes and the most interactions with all the other characters. He’s the standout in the first two acts, a brilliant instigator of conflict with plenty of his own faults. He takes his fair share of poundings in the ring, and gives as good as he gets. He’s subtler than Martha, using wit and sarcasm as a front, bringing dry humour to counter her bolshiness. In the third act, he is a support, allowing Martha the moment she needs, never disappearing into the background but never intruding. It’s a very well-measured performance, and it was the one that carried me through the whole story.
The other two characters left less of an impression. Luke Treadaway, who plays Nick, was unfortunately least impressive; his American accent, although consistent, was exaggerated in comparison to the experts he shared the stage with, and was particularly noticeable if you’d seen him in anything else (A Street Cat Named Bob, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). The character of Nick had his moments, and there is a particular point where he cracks open, but his main purpose is as a pawn in the game between George and Martha. He does have more to do than his wife, Honey, played by Imogen Poots; with the least stage time of all, Poots had a tough job. The whole way through I expected her to be brought back in and take on a greater significance, but she is mostly there to serve as backstory for Nick and to underline certain emotional moments. She is allowed moments to shine; she brings a wonderful physicality and grace when performing an interpretive dance draped in her floaty yellow dress. But ultimately, the innocence of her character is what is needed in the company she is in, and her simplicity is a form of relief.
In the end, it is George and Martha’s story. They guide us through the highs and lows, the rows and the reconciliations. Theirs is the story that will stay with you long after you see it.
Image source: Playbill.com