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Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? at Sydney Opera House

Review by Lee Sarich

Edward Albee’s classic has been given new life by First Nations Director Margaret Harvey in a State Theatre Company South Australia production as part of Sydney Festival 2022 at the Sydney Opera House.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Speaks about the lies we tell ourselves and each other and the way we collectively support and invest in these lies to protect ourselves from truths that are inevitably revealed. The blanket gets pulled back on the complexity of interwoven relationships between husband and wife, in-laws and co-workers, we see how the things we won’t admit to in ourselves become the things we won’t admit to as a society and the resulting catastrophes can sink us or motivate us to seek something better. Truth and illusion, truth and illusion, it’s repeated often in the play and we are left with a sense that if we are to seek something better we have more chance of achieving it by supporting each other together.

Margaret Harvey by choosing to cast actors who are BIPOC draws attention to the common reality of universal struggles and triumphs within human relationships irrespective of race. She shows how classic and groundbreaking issues from 1960s white American are still relevant and applicable to the entirety of our society today.

Wagadagam man Jimi Bani plays George, one half of the explosive husband and wife duo completed by Susan Prior as Martha. George drives the relationship, from playful banter with his equally playful wife to screaming in anguished rage as they compete for control over each other and their carefully constructed life. There’s beautiful moments when a natural story teller emerges and we’re treated to glimpses of an artist in his element, thousands of years of history in a moment on the stage. Forging forwards, taunting and goading, George stops to assess and pass judgment on society at large. Acknowledging the conflicting systems of change and innovation against old and secure, oppressing but safe, George will fight to the death to maintain his authority and place in a system that serves neither him nor his wife. In the end, defeated by the loss of a protective fantasy, we sense George finding new ways forward, ways embracing himself, his wife, and their life as it is.

Susan Priors’ hysterically drunken cackle claws its way on stage, making way for Martha to battle with George, herself, and the constraints of the society she finds herself in while entertaining, seducing, confusing and confronting their guests. With an enjoyable mix of exuberant banter and scathing attacks, Martha dances to her own internal drum, well oiled by drinks constantly supplied by George. She provides an excitingly unpredictable energy, drawing first George then house guests Nick and Honey into her spell. From this magnetic maelstrom Martha gathers herself with poise and focused intention to pursue and penetrate Nick’s futile defences. She stands triumphant having mastered her world, threatened only by the flawed belief in her own omnipotence. As this belief and her constructs crumble, she releases her illusions to recalibrate with a workable truth.

Rashidi Edward and Juanita Navas-Nguyen are Nick and Honey. Invited for drinks after a university faculty party the couple find themselves bearing unwitting witness to domestic carnage that forces them to reveal and confront their own.

Nick maintains a steady reticence trying to maintain his footing among the ever changing landscape manipulated according to the whims of his hosts. Navigating that uncertainty with confident devotion it’s an unsurprising pleasure to see him later relaxing congenially with George before accepting Marthas’ advances with determination and control. Stunted communication between George and Nick is executed perfectly with breath-catching catch and release, peak and trough confrontation alternating from tense to relaxed with masterful precision.

Honey brings a bubbly joyful energy warming to the hosts games and diving in before understanding the rules whereby at any moment she might find herself in the centre of a malicious power play. Indeed she does. We get the sense of an unassuming innocent wandering heedlessly into a trap before her own machinations are revealed. Cajoling her husband, dancing with George, Honey enjoys a moment as life of the party until the rug is pulled beneath her. Realising she’s become the centre of a humiliating game, her devastation is allowed to flash through us all.

Becoming aware of their hosts delusions, Nick and Honey finally withdraw with their own pierced realities seemingly intact. Maybe one of the biggest lies of all being that in comparison, we’re really not that bad.

Set and costume design by Ailsa Paterson puts us in any sharp looking Australian city apartment of the 2020s. The water feature allows exploration in themes of absolution, cleansing and exorcism, with costuming providing colour and sass. Lighting by Nigel Levings enhanced the moods and highlighted the distinct separation of acts. Sound and composing by Andrew Howard lent subtle but focused emphasis to increase tension and invite us deeper into this world of competing and conflicting truths, where we find out exactly Who Is Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? We all are.

Image Credit: Yaya Stempler


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