Edward Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Harold Pinter Theatre, London (Director: James MacDonald)
By Sascha Krieger
There seems to be a sense out there in what we call the „Western world“ of decline, of having our best days behind us, a desire to find our way back to a golden age when things were clearer, better, less, confusing, more black and white. In the United States, for example, a hollow reality TV character just got elected President on the stunningly meaningless promise to „Make America Great Again“. When, one might ask, was America „great“ and what was its greatness? Many point back to the 1950s, an idyllic yet modern, quiet yet industrial America unperturbed by social unrest, fresh off winning a world war, self-confident and free from self-doubt. Sure, there was McCarthy, moral oppression and a deeply entrenched patriarchal society but aren’t those minor flaws – or perhaps none at all? Edward Albee’s perennial audience favourite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set against this America’s backdrop. A well-respected couple, he a college professor, she the university President’s daughter, inviting a new teacher and his wife into their home. What could go wrong? The answer should be pretty well-known by now: everything. For, beyond the shiny surface lies a yawning abyss, a black nothingness of fear and desolation. The black hole of a world on the brink of distinction.
Now, in the new „golden age“, at least in the eyes of the Trump- and Le-Pen- and Brexit-voting roll back faction of the mostly white part of Western society, this fear, this danger seems strangely present, yes, frighteningly realistic again. Not long, it seems, before we’ll be building fallout shelters once again. When James Macdonald – an expert in collapsing families symbolizing a society in crisis, see his John Gabriel Borkman at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre a few years back – produces Albee’s play now, all of this is among the baggage the evening carries with it. He sets the play firmly in the 1950s, in a cluttered, yet still somewhat representational living room full of memories and ghosts (set design: Tom Pye). The hair is flawless but way too much (yes, this association creeps in, too), the fashion either on the prudish or the vulgar side. At some point, George the failed professor husband reads a book called „The Decline of the West“. Is it like looking at what seems to be a museum display and realising it’s actually a mirror.
The emptiness of human existence out to destroy its very self shines through during these remarkably short three hours. Imelda Staunton is Martha, the daughter/wife, frustrated, disappointing, desperate for attention and, more importantly meaning. Her wit is brutal, her attacks like precisely targeted high-tech weapons, every shot aimed at hurting the target. Everything seems tactical, for a purpose, yet never cool. Staunton’s Martha is an emotional, desperate woman, but also a very smart one, completely aware of her power as the wealthy daughter who can make or break anyone in her vicinity.As brutal as her delivery is, as concise is it, too. She does not unravel, she never loses control. She’s waging war, for a purpose. a war her husband does not want to participate. When drawn in, Conleth Hill accepts the challenge. Starting out as a soft-spoken man with a hint of sadness, he becomes an acerbic, always low-key but even more damaging warrior, too. If he cannot get his wife to conceal the abyss, he’s ready to lay it bear, win the war with the weapons presented to him.
Truth and illusion are key words of the play. In Macdonald’s production they form its centre. One doesn’t need rocket science to understand how that might play into our own times. Martha and George’s crusade, much against their will, turns out not to hurt the other to numb their own pain, to conceal the existential threat from realising that the surface you built just barely hides aware a much different reality, that not only is not all good, in fact, nothing is. No, it becomes a battle to overcome illusion and find truth, even if that truth reveals that the belief they built their life around has always been false, that the „golden age never existed“. The other couple present the triumph of illusion. Luke Treadaway’s Nick is an arrogant, vain, self-confident proponent of a self-professed master class believing in nothing but their own destiny for success. A blind believer that the world is what he wants it to be and that everything he does is right. We might know the type. Imogen Poot’s Honey is the perfect foil, a blond, big-haired puppet drinking her existential loneliness away, being much more aware of her situation than her delusional husband. A joke, a clown, a haunted human under layers of make-up.
Macdonald’s production is hilariously funny, every punchline perfectly delivered, every blow expertly aimed. The timing is as flawless as the pace, the three hours pass away hardly noticed. But the laughter is not light, there is a bitter taste to it, almost too subtle to notice at first but soon not to be argued away. Comedy is perfectly used to deliver the message pleasantly and efficiently, the bitter taste even more bitter once the sugar coating has been removed. As the two punch-drunk fighters stumble into a realisation they’d prefer to hide, they become universal soldiers, quintessential humans struggling for light in the dark, fur meaning within the confusing. But they are also individuals, clearly definable human beings, flesh and blood, challengingly present in their flaws, the search for a mode of being not entirely vacant. The ending is quiet, touching, two wounded fighters, two bruised souls awkwardly cling to the other in the darkness that’s setting in. The truth is out, illusion defeated, at least for the moment. Is there hope, a silver lining in the dusk? Or is it just that the journey into the darkness will happen with a seeing eye now, not blinded by vanity? Who knows?