Review: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

19 May 2009

I know this play. It’s one of my favourites, actually. I have the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film version, and I saw it on the West End with Kathleen Turner in the role of Martha. The plot deserves mention: George and Martha (a middle-aged husband and wife) verbally rip themselves and their guests (the young couple Nick and Honey) to pieces, as they are seen to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, love and hate. It’s painful and funny and desperate and sad, but much as I like a good literary squee, we all know a reviewer’s job is to discuss the production, not the text, so I’ll resist the urge to prac crit the text and return to considerations of this production.

It was great fun. They say casting is half the battle, and Director Robyn picked four actors well matched to their roles. From her first off–stage infuriating cackle, Elizabeth Donnelly’s Martha was a focal point of action. Her joyless seduction of Nick, the younger man with his eye on the prize, was physically perfect, and as she alternated between flirting and goading, you glimpsed her terrible stagnation and desperation. Throughout the performance there was a continued sense of actors that were familiar and comfortable with each other’s spaces, (surprisingly rare in Cambridge theatre – I have sat through many ‘aw shucks’ love scenes with passionate kisses that involved pelvises two feet apart) but Donnelly effortlessly embodied the hip-swinging sexuality of a mature woman in a way that demanded applause.

Ed Rowett’s George was wonderfully wearied and strained at the same time, and it is a testament to his acting that I cannot begin to guess his age; each time he sat in a chair, I knew he was tired and that his back ached, each time he retreated into silence, I knew he was furious. Nick (Paul Syers) and Honey (Hannah Blaikie) carved out their own characters: Blaikie plays a fun drunk, and Syers’s pugnacious over-confidence was expressed in every clenched fist and jutting head.

Hoedemaker kept her actors mobile and engaging enough to recompense for a four-hander with single-shot set. Although the realist staging was effective it would have been nice to see a greater use of split-level, but I appreciate that having a late show sniffing at the production’s heels every evening puts practical limits on the stage designer’s imagination. All in all, a successful production of a wonderful play. You missed it? You missed out.

Rating: 4 stars

Reviewer: Annabel Banks