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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Apollo Theatre 2006

There are perhaps 3 or 4 American plays as good as Edward Albee's, but no more than that, and this award-winning production from Broadway is the best since the original 40 years ago.

Is that clear enough? Go.

Albee's dissection of what seems at first a diseased marriage but proves to be far more complex and life-affirming is one of those great pieces of stage writing (like a few of Tennessee Williams's or August Wilson's) that leaves you on a contact high from the sheer exuberance of its language and operatic intensity of its passions.

As we watch his George and Martha verbally clawing at each other, and at the younger couple who are their hapless guests, we come to realise that, in George's words, they are 'exercising. We're walking what's left of our wits.'

Albee had the courage to put onstage a couple whose life was filled with disappointment and failure, and who chose to face that pain by living life at full tilt. Their constant sniping at each other is a way to keep themselves awake, operating at full throttle in order to fight their demons with all they've got.

And like Tennessee Williams in The Night of The Iguana (conveniently playing in the theatre next door), Albee guides us to recognise that their fight is a heroic one and that no coping mechanism that helps you make it through the night is to be disdained.

And, by the way, it is also frequently very funny.

Actress Kathleen Turner was the generating force behind this revival. Bravely turning her back on Hollywood's ageism, she grabs at one of the richest roles the American repertory offers a woman her age (She happily admits to 52), and makes it her own, erasing memories of every other Martha since the original Uta Hagen.

Guided by director Anthony Page, Turner wisely and sensitively resists all temptations to make Martha a braying monster, keeping her well within the bounds of believability as a strong, angry woman whose several unbearable pains are just below the surface.

Her level of playing allows Bill Irwin to accomplish one of the most difficult of actor's challenges, to underplay George even further, and still steal scenes. Irwin has clearly taken the colour grey as his keynote, and at first seems in danger of fading into the scenery, until you notice that you are always watching him as he communicates and holds you with the slightest of inflections or gestures.

And as a pair, they are able to communicate complex emotional subtexts with a momentary shared look or smile that tells us volumes about the unbreakable bond that lies beneath the seeming war between them. They can also exploit and enjoy all of Albee's black humour, showing how much a part of their intimacy it is.

In what can be the thankless roles of the younger couple, Mireille Enos is as annoyingly air-headed as you could wish a Honey to be, while David Harbour catches the disorientation of a previously confident man who repeatedly bumps into the realisation that he is out of his depth.

Albee has cut about 20 minutes from the original text, though lovers of the play might only notice the absence of a scene between George and Honey at the end of Act Two.

This is quite simply the best drama, with the best performances, in town. You will tell your grandchildren about seeing this. Do not miss it.

 

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Apollo 2006