There’s something about watching great writing in an intimate space that can sucker-punch the air out of its watching audience. As is the case with Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece about marriage warfare, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, given an ever-tightening production by David Mercatali that by the end leaves its audience as emotionally winded as the characters. Over 210 minutes its laid witness to a long, bruising night of the soul. I predict many stumbling out into the street needing their own generous measure of bourbon.
It’s 2 am and a party is only just getting started. Middle-aged History professor George and his wife Martha are hosting his young, high-flying colleague Nick and partner Honey. But as the drinks cabinet spirits flow, George and Martha launch into full trench warfare on their marriage and engage in a sadistic game of ‘get the guests’ on the unsuspecting visitors.
It originally feels overpitched in the space, characters pitching their bon viveur to a space somewhere further away than the fourth wall of Anisha Field’s fashionably 60’s set living room. The jokes are a bit egged, the forced intimacy a little too desperate. Pooky Quesnel’s Martha feels too obviously vampy, a cross between Elizabeth Taylor in the film and Bette Davies. Its first act feels the less focussed, not helped by a few minor line stumbles and a certain artificiality in the playing.
Yet as the alcohol kicks in the emotional truth becomes clearer as the alcoholic fog descends. The shields of forced affability are dropped and a direct attack on the human spirit is launched. The play ends with all four of them hunched in four corners of the room, barely still standing, reeling from almost fatal blows.
It’s a play that I’ve always come to see as Martha’s based on some recent star castings, the aforementioned Taylor, Kathleen Turner, Imelda Staunton, but here the play undoubtedly belongs to Mark Meadows George. He begins the evening with a stooped weary acceptance that he has missed his chance in life, constantly overlooked for promotion and seeing his light dim. Yet as the fight between him and Martha deepens, he puffs up until he is almost unbearably terrifying-looking to land the knockout punch. For the first time, he seems to be the moral compass of the work, the one its audience can feel genuine affection for. His late cruelty almost hurts us as much as it does Martha, as though we’ve witnessed a close friend overstep the boundaries. It is the first superb performance of the year.
Quesnel certainly brings the allure in a figure-hugging green dress and is a fine actor, but she struggles to find the balance between the venom the character sprouts and the vulnerability that these barbs hide. It is only in the last few minutes that you start to be let into her pain. In the best versions of the work, the sympathies of the audience should be flying between the pair as often as a tennis rally, here Meadows serves mostly to love.
Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry bring life to the dull All-American couple, Tweedale spinning into ever-increasing toxicity with every shot knocked back and Henry pitching perfectly the look of fear in her ever-widening ‘aw shucks’ smile.
Mercatali’s production, though long (the estate refused any cuts to be made in this version so we have the complete, not the definitive version of the play) finds layer after layer in the lashings of marital discord. The early comedy turns dark, the simmering violence turns erotic, the early ease ends in desolation. Each of these moments is carefully delineated in a production that requires regular movement for sightlines in the round while using ever-increasing stillness as the night slowly drifts into dawn.
A strong cast and fine director certainly bring clarity to this towering American masterpiece, but it will be remembered chiefly for Meadow’s George, crunching through broken glass, a fitting metaphor for a marriage long since shattered.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 21 March and then Salisbury Playhouse from the 26 March to 11 April