Sunday, 22 January 2023

REVIEW: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Theatre Royal Bath

Edward Albee’s 1962 three-act play Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? is perhaps best known for the 1966 film which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the aggressive game-playing American couple who live on the campus of a small New England College. It is an uncomfortable challenging play over three Acts which are subtitled as a clue to the progressively unpleasant behaviours of the older protagonists. Act 1, Fun and Games, sees the couple Martha and George invite a young couple Nick and Honey back to their house at 2 am after a faculty party in a drunken series of interactions. Act 2, Walpurgisnacht (a reference to a witches' meeting) ups the tension as the games become more serious and fractious. Act 3, The Exorcism reveals the truths amongst the illusions and games. The result is a long evening in which the action, though dramatic, involves four particularly unsympathetic characters touching on child abuse, murder, adultery, sexual harassment, and bullying behaviours in the context of an unfulfilled career and inadequacies of marriage.

This latest production is staged in the Ustinov Theatre tucked around the back of the glorious Theatre Royal in Bath. It is a black-walled claustrophobic cramped venue which should offer the audience intimacy and engagement with the performance but the armless stiff-backed seats and heavy herbal cigarette smoke from the chain-smoking Martha created a heady uncomfortable atmosphere in which it was difficult to really settle and appreciate the production. It makes a sharp contrast to the Alan Ayckbourn 1965 comedy, Relatively Speaking, which is also a four-handed about martial problems and role-playing, which is on at the main house at Bath Theatre Royal and offers a much more fun and congenial evening’s entertainment. This play is said to have some laugh-out-loud moments but on my visit, those around me responded with stifled embarrassed chuckles and the sharp contrast between the comedy and the grim aggressive tone was missing.

The American actress Elizabeth McGovern, best known as the sweet charming and motherly Lady Cora on screen in Downton Abbey TV series and films plays the drunken sexually predatory Martha, a world away from the on-screen persona which no doubt attracted her to the role but will shock and surprise anyone going to the theatre as a Downton fan. From her first appearance stumbling home from the faculty party, she begins braying at and bickering with her poor lugubrious husband George and announces that she has invited two people back to the house so they can exercise their wit. George played by the Scot, Dougray Scott with an American drawl, appears neither surprised nor bothered by the announcement as if he has seen it all before. When the young couple arrives the stiff biology professor Nick, played by Charles Aitken and his young attractive but timid wife Honey, played by Gina Bramhill soon find themselves embarrassingly in the middle of a seemingly toxic relationship veering from argumentative spite to sexual encounters in a matter of lines. We feel their embarrassment but why do they not simply walk out? Is it a fear of career damage as Martha’s father is President of the College? Together they portray the rapid decline into drunken chaos well, but the situation remains artificial and of its period and never feels more than an exercise in literary muscle flexing.

The set design by Paul Wills hints at an elegant period home with back wooden panelling let go and filled with the debris and mess of the couple’s chaotic marriage and Lindsay Posner’s direction keeps them circulating around the central sofa in which Nick and Honey find themselves trapped early on. It never progresses from gamesmanship, and we are never convinced that this feuding couple are doing anything more than act out a pre-planned game for their amusement although you do get a sense of George’s brooding dissatisfaction.

This play is often said to be amongst the greatest plays written alongside Death of a Salesman, A Doll’s House, An Inspector Calls and Private Lives but while I can feel why it was so impactful when it first came out, I don’t see how it stands the test of time compared to these other classic plays. I have to be intrigued by the action, care about a character or be swept along by the revelations to be engaged and I felt none of these connections despite the best efforts of a good cast. If you have not seen the play before and are looking for an exercise in theatrical mind-stretching, then you might give it a try but otherwise, it might be better to settle down in the comfort of your own home and watch the Taylor/Burton film again.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row F | Price of Ticket: £39
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