Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

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The world might’ve lost the great Edward Albee late last year, but his 1962 masterwork Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is still an essential piece of theatre, speaking to audiences with surprising urgency.

Warring couple George and Martha and their two young, green guests, are very much creatures of 1960s America in terms of their manner, their speech and their concerns. But Albee’s dialogue and evolving relationships still ring with absolute truth.

George and Martha are a highly intelligent, long-married couple, constantly locked in a battle of wits, using each other as verbal sparring partners. George is an associate professor of history whose career has never really taken off, and Martha is the daughter of the college’s president.

At 2am, after a late campus staff party, Martha invites the college’s new professor, 28-year-old Nick, and his young wife, Honey, around for a drink. Which soon turns into two drinks. And then three. And then … well, a lot more.

Where George and Martha are opaque and shrewd, Nick and Honey seem innocent and almost transparent in their marriage.

There’s a strong, uncertain sense of reality driving the action of this play, both in the relationship between George and Martha, and in a much broader sense about the illusions societies use to hold themselves together. Perhaps not so much has changed in America since the ’60s.

The Ensemble Theatre’s new production brings George and Martha to life with a faithful brutality and a searing, accurate sense of Albee’s wit and comedy.

Director Iain Sinclair has, along with set designer Michael Hankin and lighting designer Sian-James Holland, created the perfect lounge-room/battlefield for this couple. Much like Martha, it’s stylish, but a little on the dishevelled side.

Sinclair paces the production beautifully — careful never to rush, so as to give the audience a sense of the claustrophobia felt by the characters as this long night continues on.

He’s also assembled a fine quartet of actors, but it’s Genevieve Lemon who makes the biggest impression as Martha. Her Martha is bubbly and wryly funny, but transforms significantly over the play’s three hours as her relationship with George becomes more and more precarious.

It’s a gift of a role, but also one that asks a lot from an actor. To land with the requisite impact, the actor needs to be willing to turn herself into a destructive force, and then feel the full weight of the devastation incurred when the destruction is finally turned upon her.

Lemon has no qualms about going to that dark place, and delivers one of the most intricate and powerful performances I’ve seen this year.

Darren Gilshenan is a strong match for Lemon as the ineffectual, under-achieving George. He’s been beaten down — although at least as much by himself as by Martha and her father — and Gilshenan brings an early sense of fatigue. You almost get a sense that Gilshenan’s George could surrender to Martha at some point, but he’s too smart to roll over quite that easily.

Brandon McClelland and Claire Lovering start out as the picture-perfect young, respectable American couple, but it’s not long until cracks start to show. McClelland reveals a darker side as the night goes on, while Lovering draws plenty of great laughs out of this wonderful, if somewhat underwritten, character role.

It’s been said that the play had significant shock value for audiences back in 1962, using some coarse language, which is now par for the course in contemporary theatre, and showing an older, married woman exerting her sexuality in a way that would’ve certainly made audiences uncomfortable.

That the play still retains a degree of shock, and the ability to hit you in the guts as relationships combust, is a testament to just how brilliant it truly is.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until June 18.

Featured image by Prudence Upton

One response to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

  1. Loved Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Ensemble Theatre. Gilshenin and Lemon bring skilful comic timing and a more laid back approach to their roles. The set is inspired – a tad too busy; could lose 2 pieces of furniture. Honey and Nick shine in this production: carefully crafted performances.
    The abrupt opening works well. Shuts the audience up and then we are off. Unfortunately for me the seeds of doubt in George and Martha were sown early. For example, George comes in wearing a shirt. He sits and puts on a cardigan. Why? He intends going to bed. He comes in from the cold. He showed no signs of being cold. Later when Nick and Honey arrive he helps them remove their jackets. The presence of purposeless movement bothered me throughout. This phenomena creeps into the fabric of the play: The major turning points have a same same feeling and lacked definition. What should be spontaneous had a premeditated run-up. Critically, I found myself channeling the song by the Black Eyed Peas wondering ‘Where is the love’. If you don’t get the love between George and Martha then you lose the motivation for the play’s evolution. Lemon partially anaesthetises the power of Martha by prioritising the comedic aspect of the role. Her poignant emotional conundrum is drowned in activity. The exquisite balm of Albee’s craft is somewhat ordinary in her hands. She doesn’t closely resemble an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike and nor should she, but she falls far short of convincingly seducing or even flirting sufficiently with Nick. Her one device, rubbing his inside thigh between his advantageously positioned legs, is powerful in itself, but needs more preceding it. Nick’s interest necessarily flowers a little late also. Albee is a genius and his writing withstands many flaws actors may bring to their performance if, as this production does, the words can be clearly heard. The play is so special and the four actors bring his script to the ear with great precision. I really enjoyed it, but was more mindful of shortcomings than I would wish.

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