Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Arthur Tan 9 May 2018

I stepped into the Corpus Playroom last night with high expectations – after all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is such a modern classic, and a personal favourite of mine. As it turns out, this production directed by Katie Woods did not disappoint – it fully embraced the dark and bitter sense of humour so distinctive of the play, and ably navigated the tension between the largely naturalistic dialogue and the tinge of absurdism which hinted at the fictions and illusions waiting to be unravelled.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf unfolds within late-night after-party drinks hosted by History professor George and her wife Martha, with new Biology professor Nick and his wife Honey invited over as guests. As the night goes on, the mood swings wildly from jovial to grim as the two couples engage in a series of increasingly cruel party ‘games’ – including ‘Humiliate the Hosts’ and ‘Get the Guests’ – that exposes the dysfunction, disillusionment and dishonesty within both marriages.

The Corpus Playroom proved to be a perfect location for the play, as the limited space amplified the claustrophobic atmosphere, and compelled the audience to engage fully and directly with the twisted ‘games’ happening on stage. This was complemented by the set, designed by Stanley Thomas, which effectively anchored much of the action front-of-stage around the couch, and by the occasional and subtle shifts in lighting, designed by Eduardo Strike, which aptly matched the changes in overall tone.

Undoubtedly though, it was the ability of the four cast members to capture the essence of their multifaceted characters that was the highlight of the show. Joe Tyler Todd as George started off a little too subdued in the first act but grew into his character quickly – and though he was spectacular in his openly vindictive taunting, Todd truly excelled during the moments of his quiet, simmering anger as he stewed in his humiliation and anxieties about his inadequacies. By contrast, Milo Callaghan as Nick brought the spark of youthful energy and vitality to his character that provided a perfect contrast to the middle-aged George, and the contest of masculinity catalysed by the initial self-assuredness and confidence which Callaghan naturally exuded played out magnificently. Similarly, Annabelle Haworth as Honey deserves praise for pulling off moments of much-needed levity and comedic relief in what was otherwise a dark and deliberately discomforting play, and she nailed her transformation from being a seemingly naive and guileless wife to someone with her own skeletons to hide.

Last but certainly not least, Shimali De Silva delivered the standout performance of the night as Martha. Her seamless transitions between an impressive gamut of emotions – ranging from quiet exhaustion to senseless hysteria, from vicious contempt to bitter frustration – all while maintaining a convincing semblance of drunkenness throughout was a sight to behold. In particular, her monologue at the start of the third act where she acknowledged how George was the only man to make her happy, and her ‘recitation’ about their son were both poignant moments that vividly illustrated how love and affection can coexist with hatred and frustration, and how we give in to our own worst impulses despite our best intentions.

Above all, it was the explosive dynamics and undeniable chemistry between all four of them which delivered the most memorable moments – especially in the third act, where the deadly cocktail of rage, bitterness, and jealousy (and, of course, alcohol) imploded into a series of climatic confrontations. A shout-out here goes to Katie Woods and her team of directors for the impeccable staging, which ensured that the presence, tension and interaction of all the characters on stage were distinct and palpable throughout, even when absolute chaos ensued or when attention was drawn to one character dominating the scene.

Perhaps the only minor quibble I have with an otherwise outstanding production, or rather a warning for those unacquainted with the play, is the fact that it was an exhausting experience to watch – compounded by the decision to run through all three acts with only two-minute intervals between each act. This was a double-edged sword, insofar as it sustained the relentless tension and intensity that was ratcheted up with each act but added to the occasionally overwhelming emotional strain on the audience.

That being said, this was also a clear testament to the gripping intensity of this hard-hitting play that relishes in its own diabolical twists and turns. Much in the same way that Nick and Honey were left rattled after they were unwittingly dragged into the toxic dynamics of Martha and George’s marriage, I left the Corpus Playroom feeling emotionally drained – as though I had too been drawn into this so-called party that played out before our eyes.

Once the action begun, I was torn between a fervent desire for the nightmarish ‘games’ to end and the irresistible impulse to keep watching as the characters on stage went at each other. This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf proved itself to be impossible to tear my eyes away from – it demands your attention, and so rightly deserves it.