A breathtaking addition to the history of Edward Albee’s classic; Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill are not to be missed in James MacDonald’s masterful rendering of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
When Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? first opened at The Billy Rose Theatre (New York) in 1962, it was met with overwhelming critical and commercial success. Years on, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, we can see that the story of George and Marta’s disastrous “night cap” with young couple Nick and Honey is a timeless classic. It shows us, with great humour and pathos, the lengths people will go to keep their illusions about the world intact and what happens when they are forced to face the truth.
The performances were, for the most part, exceptional. Imelda Thaunton as Martha, as you might expect, was a tour-de-force. Like the character of George himself, the audience could not help but love this terrifying woman. Behind all the gin, insults and adultery, Martha is just a deeply disturbed little girl and Imelda captures this internal conflict beautifully. Her energy was magnificent. She crossed the stage in great leaps and bounds and draped herself seductively over the furniture (and Luke Treadway). By some un-human feat of vocal strength, Imelda kept up this squawk-like voice for her characterisation of Martha. A source of humour for us, but a source of great discomfort for the character of George. Imelda’s final words and despair in the closing minutes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will move you to tears.
Conleth Hill was nothing short of brilliant. It’s hard to know exactly how to describe his performance of George. The best way I can think of is to say that George was real. I could sit here and list things like: his perfect American accent, his wit and his emotional intensity. But what we’re meant to see is a person. George may not have been a perfect man, but despite his cynicism, he was a kind and loving soul. Conleth gifts to us, with every bit of his love and passion for the craft, the night when George was pushed over the edge and acted cruelly. At the end of the play, you will ask yourself: was George right to go as far as he did?
Imogen Poots as Honey was adorable. In both her physicality and vocal work, she demonstrated a wonderful fragility. This starkly contrasted her with Imelda’s Marta, whose physicality was sturdy and her voice unyielding. But as it transpires, the pair are one and the same and share, deep down, a longing for something that only spoilers could reveal. It was hard to believe that this was Imogen’s first West End role, as she had a discipline and a fearlessness that I would only expect from a seasoned theatre actor.
All in all, I enjoyed Luke Treadway as Nick but I have to say, his entrance into the story was nothing short of lacklustre. He wasn’t projecting his voice enough and his accent didn’t quite meet the standard of the other three actors. As he went along, his performance improved greatly. He had warmed up and I started to see the self assured and humourless man George was describing to us. I think Luke can afford to bring more energy to Act One, even if it’s just in the form of visible anxiety or impatience.
It’s easy to see from this production that director James MacDonald has a wonderful breadth of talent. It takes an extremely focused and passionate mind to ensure that the beats of this play happen at the perfect moments and James most certainly succeeded. His eye for small details – for instance, the spot-on way the actors would cringe after drinking straight spirits – made the piece entirely enthralling. It’s a long play, but it flew by and I never for one moment felt bored; credit to James’s excellent pacing. Although there were respectful homages to Mike Nichols 1966 film adaptation of the play, this production felt brand new. I have no doubt that it will be spoken about for years to come as an exceptional incarnation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Be sure to see it whilst you still can.