Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

 Ustinov Studio, Bath

Like most people, I really only know Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf from the Burton/Taylor film. The film runs to a couple of hours whereas this production keeps us squashed in the Ustinov seating for three and a half, so I guess we're getting a fuller treatment of the text.

It's much denser and complex than I realised. George (Dougray Scott) shoots his words out at speed, like a relentless marital machine gun. It's a virtuoso performance, a mountain for an actor to climb; but he dominates the stage like a Danish Prince or even (it once crossed my mind) a pantomime dame; the rest of the cast revolving around him. Martha (Elizabeth McGovern ) is more human being than force of nature -- a very damaged human being, but not, until the final moments, necessarily unhinged. Their younger visitors -- unnamed in the text, although the young man refers to his wife by the diminutive Honey -- start out as Jo and Jane Average, intruding on the deranged set up, but gradually unravel. 

The production is sensibly in period and naturalistic, with books and glasses and old fashioned vinyl records in piles and a modernish painting dominating the room. "Nick" (Charles Aitken ) is the classic short-cropped 1950s twenty-something, inclined to call everyone Sir. Psychological layers are stripped away along with his shirt and tie until he ends up openly making love to his hostess. The play was thought dirty when it first came out, and some of the language still feels relatively strong today. I'd forgotten that Martha explicitly likens her relationship with George to a consensual sadomasochistic game. ("My arm is tired from holding the whip.") If that's true, then the horrible psychological cruelty of the final act may actually cement and redeem their marriage. At the beginning of Act II Martha talks openly to Honey (Gina Bramhill) about how George is the only man she has ever really loved; and how perfectly suited they are to each other. But perhaps this is another mask; another bit of weird role-play.

But watching the play on this small, rather claustrophobic stage makes me wonder if psychological realism is what we should be looking for. I think the play is really a piece of absurdism, following the same kind of stage logic as Godot. The mutually antagonistic equilibrium of two characters is disrupted by the arrival of a second, equally interdependent couple, whose relationship is to some extent a mirror image of the first. Nick and Honey are what George and Martha used to be; George and Martha are what Nick and Honey may become. Martha wants children; Honey is terrified of the idea. Nick married Honey because of a false pregnancy; Martha and George preserve their marriage by means of a fictional son. Martha tells Honey about the fictional boy even though she has promised not to; Nick tells George about the false pregnancy, and George viciously repeats the story. George kills the fictional son; Honey may (in fact) have aborted a real child. And so on, and so on: Honey's father is a famous preacher; Martha's is head of the college; both hint at slightly-too-close relationships, and absent mothers.

Like Estragon and Vladimir, Nick and Honey could walk away from the situation at any time; but if they did, the play would come to end. So what is left is an endless series of cruel verbal games to fill the time. (The first act is titled Fun and Games.) Honey, agonisingly, seems to be drawn into George and Martha's fiction by the end; responding piously to George's facetious Latin requiem, and seeming to believe in the fictional messenger who has brought the supposed bad news.

Some readers have looked for a metaphor: maybe George and Martha's names are significant -- maybe the non-existent child represents America. And I did notice that George suddenly and pointedly reads from a history text book at the end of act two. ("The west, burdened by too rigid a morality, must inevitably fall.) But even if that is true, it doesn't help us understand the play. If you are still worrying about who Godot is, you haven't understood Waiting For Godot.

I found this an exhausting, intense piece of theatre. Thank goodness they gave us two proper intervals, so the play could retain its rhythm and we could stretch our legs. It's hard to imagine how actors can carry this amount of verbal physicality, night after night for a three week run. I think the audience feel drained as we come down from the climax. "Jesus Christ, I think I understand" "Who's afraid of virginia woolf? / I am, George, I am". We may not quite be able to explain the trajectory, but we understand the emotions. Calm of mind, as Milton said, all passion spent.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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