Reviewed by Lia Cox
Edward Albee’s classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf finally makes it’s debut to eager and excited audience members, after rescheduling from September 2021.
And it’s worth the wait.
First staged in 1962, the play examines the complex and dangerous marriage of a middle-aged academic couple, Martha and George.
In the early hours following a university faculty party, Martha invites an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests to her home, and draws them into their bitter, twisted and maddening relationship.
A play in three acts, with two intermissions, the title, which alludes to the English novelist Virginia Woolf, is also a pun on the song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ from Disney’s Three Little Pigs.
In the first moments of the play, we are told that someone sang the song earlier in the evening at the party, and Martha repeatedly pesters George over whether he found it funny.
Act One, entitled ‘Fun and Games’, flows as quickly as the liquor the characters are drinking.
Martha and George engage in scathing verbal abuse of each other, in front of Nick and Honey – while embarrassed, they are embroiled and stay.
Jim Bani’s George is equal parts sympathetic and sinister and Susan Prior as Martha delivers an extraordinary performance of the woman who thrives on the turbulent and volatile. Both actors bring a raw and visceral energy to the stage, which grips your guts and never let’s go.
Rashidi Edward and Juanita Navas-Nguyen are excellent as the young and full of potential couple.
Edward’s Nick begins as firm and upright, a bright beacon of perfection, before limping out of the room – thoroughly and irrevocably exposed.
Navas-Nguyen as Honey, the dim-witted, unfailingly polite wife, is a perfect representation of American society during that time.
Martha continues to taunt George belligerently, and he retaliates with his usual passive hostility.
The escalation of this act being when George, sick of being humiliated, appears with a gun and fires at Martha; but it is actually a pretend gun. Martha still taunts George, until he reacts violently by smashing a bottle. Nick and Honey are becoming increasingly unsettled, and poor Honey runs to the bathroom, having had too much to drink.
Early in the act, when Nick and Honey arrive, the front glass panel of the set lifts, to allow the audience to step into the apartment of Martha and George – we now feel part of the action as opposed to just listening in.
‘Walpurgisnacht’, the name of an annual witches meeting underlines Act Two.
Nick and George sit outside and swap stories of their wives – Nick detailing Honey’s hysterical pregnancy, and George retelling the tale of a classmate who accidentally killed his mother, then his father before being committed to an asylum. The conversation turns to children, where they eventually argue and insult each other.
As the men return inside, Martha reveals the truth about George’s writing exploits – he had tried to publish a novel about a boy who accidentally killed both his parents [with the connotation the deaths were actually murder], but Martha’s father forbid it’s publication. George responds again by attacking Martha in a strangle-hold, but Nick separates them.
George then uses the information that Nick divulged about Honey in a story called ‘Mousie’, Honey soon realises he is mocking and insulting her, implying she trapped Nick into marriage because of a false pregnancy. Feeling sick, she runs to the bathroom again.
Martha uses this as an opportunity to seduce Nick in front of George, where he pretends he doesn’t care and reads a book. As Martha and Nick take their infidelity upstairs, George throws his book and jumps into the moat surrounding the apartment set, angrily splashing water as the curtain of Act Two comes down and another glass wall of the set is lifted.
The Exorcism of Act Three is the culminating expulsion of their evil, as they continue their story of their imagined son and his death.
Martha, sitting in the blank and vacuous space, now completely frenzied and dishevelled, shouts out to the others to reappear.
George, returning with a bunch of snapdragons, and Martha have a heated discussion about the moon, which leads to them insulting Nick, calling him a ‘house-boy’; Martha’s tag for him being too drunk to have sex with her.
The final game at George’s bequest, ‘Bringing up Baby’ – where George and Martha partake in a bizarre duet of reciting their son’s upbringing. George recites segments of Libera me [part of the Requiem Mass for the dead], and it becomes clear to the guests that George and Martha’s son is a mutually agreed upon fiction. The fictional son is the final ‘game’ the two have been playing since discovering early in their marriage that they are infertile.
George decides to ‘kill’ him because Martha broke the game’s single rule – never mention the son to others.
Overcome with horror and pity, Nick and Honey finally leave, and as the sun comes up Martha suggests to George they invent another imaginary child, but George vetoes this, saying it is time the game end.
The play ends with George singing ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ to Martha as she replies ‘I am George…I am’.
The remarkable glass and water set design by Ailsa Paterson, with Nigel Levings’ incredible and intuitive lighting, and the 60s reimagined soundscapes of Andrew Howard are the three architects of sight and sound – working and weaving their skills around the actors to heighten the senses.
Margaret Harvey’s direction of this modern re-telling really plays on the themes of reality and illusion and societal expectations – none of which have changed over the years.
Her explicit colour-conscious casting is exceptional and her vision of portraying this work through her lens is completely and utterly fulfilled.
Another spectacular string to the State Theatre’s bow.
Image Credit: Brett Boardman