At three hours long with two intervals and some of the most vicious interplay on the stage, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is perhaps not for the faint-hearted. With an all-American cast headed by Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, there is probably no more bruising experience currently in the West End, but it is well worth the effort.
Edward Albee’s 1962 play centres around George and Martha, an unhappily married couple for 23 years, who after an evening out invite a newly married couple who work in the same university department as George back to theirs for drinks. But when they start to fight in front of their guests, the poisonous atmosphere envelops all of them and really lays bare how much of a battle marriage can become. She drinks too much and enjoys the fighting, but George is equally complicit as this is the only kind of interaction that gets their juices flowing these days.
As the entire original US cast have transferred with the production, it means that we get the benefit of a cast clearly comfortable in their roles and in their interactions with each other. This was most notable with Kathleen Turner’s huge generosity: the role of Martha can dominate this show utterly but Turner works with her co-stars, giving them room and playing off them wonderfully.
Bill Irwin is also wonderful, with a chilling perma-smile across his face no matter what his wife throws at him and with his snake-like gestures build in a more subtle way but to a terrifying climax that makes him easily the equal of Turner. As the visiting couple, David Harbour and Mireille Enos have much less to do in their minor parts but both succeed in making their presence felt on stage as George and Martha’s titanic struggles forces the weaknesses in their own new marriage to be exposed.
Albee’s play feels remarkably timeless and with an exceptional cast at the helm, it makes for an exhilarating night at the theatre. Exhilarating and indeed exhausting, Kathleen Turner looks knackered and sounds hoarse by the end, such is the strength of her performance and our nerves share that feeling with her: spine-tingingly good.