Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by | Nov 27, 2023

By Nick Pilgrim

Written by the late Edward Albee (1928-2016), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is considered a modern theatrical classic.

Sixty years ago since its Broadway debut and set on a university campus, the story is a gripping character study of two marriages in flux. More than that, it details the game-playing tactics younger and older rivals sometimes employ as a means for survival. Like a virtual cat and mouse set over the course of one shocking evening, viewers are asked to question who the heroes and the villains really are. Reality and fiction blur to become one, where no one leaves this party unscathed.

A landmark breakthrough in American drama, the show has scooped a multitude of prizes. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won numerous accolades including Tony Awards for Best Play (1962/63) and Best Revival (2012/13).

Notable actors to have starred in Albee’s four-hander include Colleen Dewhurst, Melinda Dillon, Ben Gazarra, Bill Irwin, Elaine May, Mercedes McCambridge, Mike Nichols, Diana Rigg, Mercedes Ruehl, Patrick Stewart, Elaine Stritch, David Suchet, and Kathleen Turner.

The list goes on.

A smash movie version shot in 1966 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who were married in real life), won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Taylor) and Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis). The film was also Oscar nominated for Best Picture, along with Mike Nichols (Best Director), Burton (Best Actor), George Segal (Best Supporting Actor), and Ernest Lehman (Best Screenplay).

Albee’s powerful work could also be considered a pivotal influence for similarly themed plays and films since such as Sleuth (1970), A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Don’s Party (1976), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Rabbit Hole (2010), August: Osage County (2013), Blue Jasmine (2013), and Marriage Story (2019).

Anyone who has found themselves in the unfortunate crossfire of a close couple’s disagreement, will find this experience highly relatable. A staple in popular culture, it is a play known to many by name. I must admit, however, I hadn’t experienced Albee’s work in person until 2017.

Six years ago, I jumped at the chance to see it for myself on London’s West End. Playing at the 800 seat Harold Pinter Theatre, that production featured Imelda Staunton (as Martha), Conleth Hill (as George), Imogen Poots (as Honey), and Luke Treadaway (as Nick).

Staged over three fifty-minute acts on a single living room set, allowed the actors tremendous range to explore the script’s comic and tragic aspects for all they were worth. Very much a voyeuristic experience for the audience, deep secrets were divulged while each relationship’s tenuous bond unraveled before our eyes. What exactly is love and marriage becomes redefined and laid bare for everyone – powerful and raw on public display.

Having reviewed at least half a dozen shows for Red Stitch to date, I was curious to see how a journey which deals with such big emotions on an epic scale would transfer to their more intimate performance space.

With its critically acclaimed season already in progress, my greatest curiosity would be seeing how married actors, Kat Stewart, and David Whiteley, committed themselves to this dance marathon of human emotion. Supported by Harvey Zielinski (as Nick) and Emily Goddard (as Honey), they match Stewart and Whitely blow for blow.

Very much a trust exercise, Red Stitch’s reconfigured staging draws us close to the action to the point of claustrophobia. At times I found myself on the edge of anxiety, fully invested in the proceedings in front of me. You forget they are acting; the quartet are that good.

It takes performers with a certain amount of life experience to handle the finer nuances of Albee’s writing. Subtle and searing in equal doses, makes the unfolding narrative that much more spellbinding.

With the players’ legitimate chemistry jumping well beyond the curtained stage, all four are fantastic physical technicians as well.  Owning the confined space, they climb and scale the set like uncaged beasts. Goddard is a particular stand out in this regard, playing Honey’s slow slide into a drunken stupor as the evening disintegrates full force.

With youth on his character’s side, Zielinski’s Nick has the cocky pugilism required to make Whiteley’s George despise him even more. Knowing this, George can only battle the younger man with his brain. Whiteley understands the cool intellectualism required to keep George’s emotions in check; it is fascinating to watch both men go at it.

As other’s have said, this is Stewart’s show to shine. Like a spider at home in the parlour, these guests will be lucky to escape her sticky web.

Her Martha is manipulative and catlike. Yet, the more we get to know her, viewers see this is but all an act. Like Tennessee Williams Maggie Pollitt (from Cat on A Hot Tin Roof) or Blanche DuBois (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Stewart somehow elicits our complete understanding and sympathy for this highly flawed and unlikeable character.

For a show which covers such vast academic and emotional territory, Sarah Goodes’ direction (with assistant direction from Keegan Bragg) keeps our interest for its full three-hour running time. Finding the right tone and pacing are critical to the play’s success. Furthermore, being allowed entry up close and personal into this rarefied world, means that the performers need to believe their every word and action, too.

As with every Red Stitch production I have reviewed, the creative team for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continue to showcase the company’s resourceful brilliance. Their knack for establishing mood and informing character through set and costume design (by Harriet Oxley with assistance from Natalie Petrellis) lighting (Jason Ng Junjie), sound design and composition (Grace Ferguson and Ethan Hunter), videography and audio-visual editing (David Bowyer), never ceases to impress.

In this instance, they are supported by Lyndall Grant (fight choreography), Amy Cater (intimacy coordinator), Bowyer (production manager), Kelly Wilson (stage manager) and Georgina Bright (assistant stage manager). The entire team work as one, presenting an experience with seamless fluidity.

Playing until Sunday December 17, current season is sold out. (However, a waiting list has been created on the company’s website for any last-minute cancellations.)

Images: Jodie Hutchinson

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