“Do you want me to say it’s funny, so you can contradict me and say it’s sad? Or do you want me to say it’s sad so you can turn around and say no, it’s funny”
The irony of the not unreasonable (don’t @ me) ‘no eating during the performance’ request blowing up around Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is that a far more egregious act is being waged in the bars of the Harold Pinter Theatre where no ice is served in drinks purchased after 7.20pm. Imagine paying theatre prices for a G&T with no ice…the tears of George and Martha just wouldn’t stand for it.
Not that there’s much they don’t stand for in Edward Albee’s excoriating play, receiving an exemplary production here from James Macdonald. Over late night drinks with an unsuspecting younger couple, George and Martha release themselves from the fustiness of East Coast academic life by drinking hard and playing harder, twisted games making the black comedy darken into abject despair as the state of the marriages here are laid bare, warts and all.
It’s a sensational piece of writing that barely seems to have aged since its 1962 debut, such is the sharpness of its caustic wit as Martha spouts forth her bitterness at life-plans gone awry and George’s morose demeanour gives way to no less wickedly pointed vitriol. And the more youthful visitors Nick and Honey’s apparently golden relationship is also exposed as already tarnished, its hollowness gleefully seized upon by their vengeful hosts as ever-flowing booze loosens lips and lowers inhibitions.
As Martha and George, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill are in staggering good form. Her intense ferocity is mesmerising whether scything into her husband or slinkily grinding up against her handsome guest. And his more contained energy is a wonderful contrast, unpredictable and dangerous – even as they expertly hint at the depths of the twisted emotion that irrevocably connects them, they keep you constantly on the edge of your seat.
Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway support them well, her stage debut accomplished with great physicality as well as mordant humour and in the smart but sterile surroundings of Tom Pye’s set design, his aloofness fits in perfectly. It’s a hefty-enough running time but Macdonald ensures you never spend a moment watching the clock, like a slow-motion car crash, you can’t drag your eyes away for a moment from the majesty and tragedy of this play.