A long night's journey into day
In times of war, loose lips sink ships, and this is all out war. The sinking ship in question is George and Martha’s twenty-three-year-old marriage, which is already taking on considerable amounts of water. George, a bogged down historian, and Martha, the college president’s daughter, are both miserable. But misery loves company, so after a late-night induction party for new faculty, Martha invites the incoming biology professor and his wife over for drinks. So begins their long night’s journey into day. A journey of biblical proportions, through the darkest recesses of personal hells in search of something akin to redemption. Such are its intrinsic demands, it takes a near flawless production to effectively deliver Edward Albee’s magnificent 1962 classic, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ The Gate Theatre’s production, returning due to popular demand for 19 performances only, is not just flawless, it is quite possibly the best revival of 2016. And a fitting tribute to Albee himself, who passed away earlier this year on September 16th, 2016.
First produced in 1962, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ has become part of the cultural lexicon of Western civilisation. With its alcohol soaked families and endless conflict, the influence of playwright Eugene O’Neill on ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ is plain for all to see. Both Albee and O’Neill adore the word, and in Albee’s tale the word is most certainly god. It is the way, the truth and the light. The dead end, the lie and the darkness. Destroyer and creator, it is the sticks and stones hurled in rage, and the pathway through a savagely dark night of the soul.
For many, the iconic, 1966 Mike Nichols’ movie version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor set the definitive standard for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ None of which poses any concern for director David Grindley, who has set about establishing a new, theatrical gold standard for Albee’s modern classic. One which ensures it never feels dated, but is rather fresh, current and relevant, with set and costumes by Jonathan Fensom wonderfully capturing both the time and the contemporary.
Denis Conway and Fiona Bell as George and Martha turn in standard setting performances as the duelling duo, he fighting and feinting with deft precision, she letting loose with the ferocity of a Gatling gun. Conway’s often dislikeable, petty associate professor permanently pouring drinks, is both long suffering and insufferable, imbued with a wicked, world weary humour that borders on charm. Fiona Bell as the chain smoking, chain drinking, chain wounding Martha, writhing in lust, rage and despair, is simply brilliant. A destructive Dionysian dark force to Conway’s rocky Apollonian rationality, Bell is body to Conway’s mind, with both becoming one in their matrimonial hell in search of a heaven. A potentially younger version of which is to be found in their late-night guests, the All-American, Midwestern charmer Nick, and his ditzy and hipless wife, Honey. Nick’s Midwestern athleticism and ruthless ambition is wonderfully realised by Mark Huberman. Sophie Robinson’s Honey, a good girl with a bad drinking problem, is utterly riveting in what is a truly remarkable performance.
In ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ you need only say the word and they shall be healed. Or eviscerated. When the sun rises and the verbal pyrotechnics end, the play is not so much over as its audience released. Albee’s incantation of scared syllables unleashes the darkest, most primal of forces, with stakes becoming higher and higher in its game of dying and life. All of which is realised to perfection in The Gate Theatre’s must-see production, a production that will be talked about for years to come.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ by Edward Albee runs at The Gate Theatre until November 12th
All images by Pat Redmond
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre