Last year’s grievous roll call of the dead included way too many theater folk, among whom the playwrights Edward Albee and Brian Friel represent losses that are unlikely to be forgotten as long as theatrical language continues to matter in any way to the world. How interesting, then, that the West End has responded to Albee’s death with a mini-season of commemorative productions that this spring has found James Macdonald’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playing around the corner from the first-ever London revival of Albee’s Tony-winning The Goat, directed by Ian Rickson.
The two stagings further invite comparison in that both Macdonald and Rickson are Royal Court veterans (Rickson ran that Sloane Square venue for a notable period) for whom the text comes first – a fact worth noting in the deconstruction-happy era of Robert Icke, Sam Gold and Ivo van Hove, where leaving one’s directorial signature seems to be the wished-for standard of the moment (often, it must be said, to hugely exciting results).
Macdonald’s superlative work on Albee’s career-defining 1962 play reminds one anew not just of the immortal savagery and power of the piece itself but of the rewards that come from mining a text that pays back proper investigation, as this one does. And though in audience terms the drawing card for the three-hour production may be the return to the West End for the first time since her powerhouse performance in Gypsy of that diminutive titan, Imelda Staunton, this is a team venture that honors all four of its very fine players. Indeed, of the Anglo-Irish quartet on view, Staunton may arguably be the least surprising of the lot insofar as the fury she brings to the eternal harridan Martha dovetails with her determination as Momma Rose. There are moments, and gestures, where we feel with this performance as if we have maybe been there before, which isn’t to say that she isn’t moment by moment among the most committed and determined actresses one could ever hope to see. That she is following these two roles up with the part of the woebegone, lovesick Sally in Follies at the National Theatre represents an abrupt change of pace that should prompt fresh shadings from her formidable acting arsenal.
Her three colleagues are all beyond praise, and if I begin with Imogen Poots’ Honey, that’s merely because this budding film actress is a stage newbie of considerable distinction who takes a role that can devolve into condescension at the character’s expense and finds in this young academic’s wife something unutterably sad, as you might be too if you were married to Luke Treadaway’s Nick. In an equally sterling turn, Olivier winner Treadaway posits the young buck, Nick, as a man on the make who, one feels, would throw Honey under a bus if that would advance his career. At once sexy and quietly chilling, it’s an unusually interesting take on what can sometimes seem a thankless part.
First among equals is double Olivier winner Conleth Hill’s George, a passive-seeming, often slouchy presence who across the three acts makes clear that George never once misses a trick – even if this is that rare George not to hide the character’s mental calculations behind a pair of spectacles. Stingingly funny as required yet also mournful once the couple’s long day’s journey through the night awakens to a baleful new day, Hill anchors a version of this play in which love and cruelty are as interconnected as passion and pain. No wonder Martha tells George that, yes, she is afraid of Virginia Woolf just as the final curtain falls. An emotional reckoning this complete is at once fearsome – and unforgettable – to behold.