Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only missed out on a Pulitzer Prize back in 1962 because of its deemed lewdness. In 2015 however, perhaps what most shocks audiences in this wife-swapping tragicomedy is less its sexual content than its depiction of marital cruelty. Playtime goes too far in Edward Albee’s masterpiece about George and Martha, spouses who have declared war, with story-telling as their chosen weapon. George and Martha tell stories to flirt, to hurt, and to simply get the attention of, their other half. All the situation needs to be brought to boiling point is the addition of two newlyweds, golden boy Nick and mousey Honey, a comparatively innocent-seeming couple who are both amused and horrified at the anecdotal proceedings – before participating in them full throttle.
In some ways, the director has been given something of a head start. The script is beautiful, absurd and yet relatable, springing from heart-wrenching lyricism to bitingly funny verbal sparring between characters who are nothing short of fascinating. However, for the very same reasons, this play is a difficult one to get right. Finding the rhythm and capturing every moment of jest and emotion in this three-hour labyrinth is difficult. It is a credit to director Louis Catliff that, more often than not, the pace was slick, the audience on opening night thoroughly responsive and entertained. However, it is perhaps inevitable that several moments of comedy or suspense were lost, several awkward pauses not properly indulged in.
Similarly, these fascinating characters are intensely complex and erratic and, if real people, they would need years of therapy. Getting them right is also difficult, and the studious plotting of their trajectories is a must. The supporting cast, Cate Kelly and Joe Viner as the mismatched Honey and Nick, were consistently solid and professional in this respect. Viner showed great attention to detail in his rendition of the young man caught between asserting his masculinity, and desperately craving advice and understanding. Kelly also captured Honey’s tragicomic essence, provoking trickles of audience laughter with her flustered, pathetic naivety, whilst also making Honey’s painful realisations about her dead-end marriage suitably dark.
Next to this melancholy pair, George and Martha’s chemistry should really dominate. Although their bond could be strengthened, Ben Glaister and Becca Schwarz were still individually impressive. Glaister was engrossing and marked a refreshing divergence from his predecessor, Mr Burton. Glaister’s more squeaking, bullied and exasperated first act George allowed for his evil vengeance to blossom in hilarious and chilling ways later. Becca Schwarz’s Martha also had moments of evil-genius brilliance. Her charm was palpable, her body language on point, her malicious smile infectious. Schwarz is only hindered by her tendency to let Martha take herself too seriously too early on. Martha is self-professedly the loud and vulgar Earth Mother who disgusts even herself. With a touch more audaciousness and eccentricity in the beginning, Schwarz can make Martha’s fall into terror-stricken defeat more fully resonate.
This is after all a play that thrives on character and audience sadomasochism. Although undoubtedly amusing, my hunch is that with more precision and energy in handling each of the twists and turns, Catliff’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can harrow us just as much as it tickles.