Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
Now, this is the big one. This is the one that has got people talking, even in Aberdeen, particularly after the Harold Pinter Theatre “politely requested” that audience do not eat any food during the performance for the duration of its run, lest the crumpling of sweetie bags disrupt the tension on stage. This has given plenty of chance for everyone to stick their oar in on the matter, from “Game of Thrones” actor Kit Harrington to film critic Mark Kermode. I have been looking forward to seeing this production ever since I started going to NT live, being rather fond of the single-location, single evening/day, society-and-decorum-crumble-to-nothing genre. Add in an intoxicated Imelda Staunton and a snack-based controversy and my hype-o-meter is through the roof.
The generally spectacular (and slightly terrifying) Staunton is probably the biggest name on the stage, and her performance really is something to see. She is tormenting when she needs to be, and you can see the gleam in her face as she plays with her guests and husband George (played by Conleth Hill). Shrill and bossy, silky and seductive, every one of the “games” (mind games that centre on putting each of the characters under the microscope in turn) are played to perfection, but simultaneously she makes you pity Martha. I found myself really feeling for her, dragged down to the spiteful, eternally unsatisfied bog that Martha has found herself in.
She does not outshine her co-stars however, not by any means. Hill’s portrayal of the beleaguered husband, who is more than a match for Martha and her antics, transforms from simpering mouse to ferocious bear and back to mouse with ease and believability. He has great chemistry in particular with Luke Treadway as newly-wedded, newly-employed, and newly-met colleague and hunk Nick, whom he quite obviously envies. Treadway was magnetic to watch, starting off as a naïve and respectable model of the American Dream, slowly revealing his vulnerability and loneliness. This vulnerability and loneliness is not directly referenced in the text but entirely encompassed by Treadway, leading to him feeling like the most human character on the stage. Imogen Poots performs as his drunken mess of a wife Honey, and though little is seen of her she does the job very well.
Oddly my first though when watching the production, directed by James MacDonald, was how grown-up it is. Maybe that says more about me than the play, but it feels like a straight-to-business, no-nonsense, no-faults direction that puts the multi-layered relationships at the heart of it. The timing and rhythm of all the actors is especially admirable. As well as making you laugh when a cutting quip is fired, it plays on the theme of marriage and staling love, as Martha and George respond to each other’s savagery as quickly as they receive it, knowing everything about the other after so many years, whilst Nick and Honey tread on eggshells around each other, showing how much they have to learn.
Macdonald kept the pace at a steady level through the first two acts, however it did slow down somewhat in the final act. The tone is suitably darker as the rowing reaches a crescendo, but it began to feel a tad repetitive: similar line delivery, slightly static staging. It was possibly they peaked too soon when Hill was finally pushed over the edge in Act Two, but it would have been nice to have a slightly tenser atmosphere before the curtain fell.
That said, the final moments of interaction between Martha and George, totally drained and sitting in the rising sunlight spilling through the windows, is a really satisfying conclusion to fantastic production. This play, which I had not seen or read before, is bursting at the seams with fascinating themes and dilemmas, all of which tie up nicely in the last few, perfectly delivered lines. This really is a stunning production. Pacing issues leave little impact in the end, but rather the brilliant performances and pitch-perfect tension are what you are left thinking about as you walk out, and for some time after. Four stars.