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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Imelda Staunton – review round-up

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Photo: Johan Persson
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Edward Albee, who died in September last year, was an undisputed giant of the American stage. A hugely influential dramatist who penned landmark plays including A Delicate Balance and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Albee is nonetheless largely remembered for his 1962 runaway success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Despite being garlanded with awards on its debut, the play was barred from winning the 1963 Pulitzer, its portrayal of a dysfunctional married couple preying on each other and on their helpless guests deemed too dark, too sexual, and too profanity-ridden to qualify.

Fifty-four years on, George and Martha – the warring couple at the heart of Albee’s play – rank highly in the list of famous dramatic creations, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been studied and staged the world over, graced by such classic pairings as Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen (in 1962), Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (in the 1966 film), and Bill Urwin and Kathleen Turner (in 2005). Now, in James Macdonald’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre, it’s the turn of Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill to descend into marital hell.

Albee’s death occurred just a week before this star-studded West End revival was announced. Is it a reappearance he would relish? Have George and Martha retained their rancour, or gone soft over the years? Just who exactly is afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf any more?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – The Woolf of the West End

Imelda Staunton – after her award-winning turns in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy – has propelled herself into the ‘national treasure’ stratosphere in recent years. Now she takes on another classic female role of the American canon.

“As the monstrous yet vulnerable daughter of a New England college president, trapped in a sour marriage, she gives a performance of wounding intensity”, reports Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★).

“Staunton is not one of your big, blowsy Marthas built on Elizabeth Taylor lines”, explains Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★), eyes brimming with fearful tears, “but a pocket fighter who shows from the start that she enjoys humiliating George and also relishes his occasional comebacks”.

“The diminutive Ms. Staunton brings to mind a tiny yet terrifying attack dog”, agrees Matt Wolf (New York Times).

“Staunton’s specialism is the female monster who somehow hooks you in, unawares, to the pain and damage that lies beneath the snarling mask and winds up enlisting your sympathy”, observes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★).

Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★★) concurs. “Nobody mines alternating notes of fury and desolation as Imelda Staunton does”, he writes. “Nor strikes such opposing forces of resilience and hopelessness”.

“In the frenzy of debate Staunton is sharper than an assassin’s dagger”, confirms Hitchings, “yet she’s every bit as memorable in the play’s quieter moments — when she’s needy and feline — and also in its bleaker ones”.

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) capitulates the critical conversation succinctly. For him, Staunton is “as good as you’d hope – playful, witty and malicious, but also desperately, desperately vulnerable, lonely and sensitive and frightened of the world outside her constructed realm of barbs and sneers”.

Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★), quivering in a ball on the floor, goes further. For him, Staunton’s performance is “one of the greatest feats of acting I have witnessed.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – It takes two

It takes two to tango, though, and alongside Staunton’s Martha is Hill’s George, the Petruchio to her Katherina, the Basil Fawlty to her Sybil, the Kermit to her Miss Piggy.

“Conleth Hill offers a pitch-perfect complement to Staunton’s restless malcontent”, writes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★★), “offsetting her nimble movement, brash candour and weaponised sexuality with a shuffling, hangdog physicality, muttered, snide irony – delivery dry as the Sahara – and desires firmly buried, occasionally surfacing with the force of a geyser”.

In appearance, he’s invisible; “In check shirt and knitted tie he looks like part of the furniture on Tom Pye’s earth-toned set”, remarks Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★).

“His entire body is hunched over from the weight of the chips he carries on his shoulders; add in his flop sweat and tucked-in tie and one had the perfect image of middle-class masculine failure”, agrees Connor Campbell (The Upcoming, ★★★★★).

“Mr Hill’s George, to look at, could be a fat Ed Balls”, says Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★).

But beneath the soft, pouchy exterior, he’s something else entirely: As Hitchings observes, “inside George lurk both violence and a malign cleverness”.

For Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★), “Hill’s performance ranks alongside Staunton’s in its fury and pain”, while for Fergus Morgan (Exeunt), Hill “manages to simultaneously evoke a man of daring, darting intellect and deep, deep self-loathing”.

“While this grey-haired figure has the paunch and stoop of a man gone-to-seed”, writes Cavendish, “Hill keeps you guessing as to how defeated he is, what’s real, what’s artificial, what’s covertly conspiratorial”.

“Weighed down by failure, he seems like an abject bear until you see him draw blood with one swipe of a paw”, says Neil Norman (Express, ★★★★).

Only Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★) has a bad word to say about either Staunton or Hill. For her, Hill “too often resembles the swamp to which Martha viciously compares him”, and Staunton has to “overcompensate” in response.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – A filthy play

“A filthy play.” That was the verdict that condemned Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1963, when it was being considered for a Pulitzer prize. Since then, we’ve grown a bit less sensitive to sexuality and swearing on the stage, and Albee’s play has overcome the prudence of its earliest critics. What does Macdonald’s revival do for it’s reputation?

For Billington, it’s the political allegory that yells itself loudest here. For him, the production is both “is both a Strindbergian marital drama and a comment on the state of the Union itself”.

Heather Neill (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) meanwhile, opines that Macdonald’s production “makes clear the power of one generation over the next”, seeing echoes of George and Martha’s discord in the marriage of their young guests, Nick – a generally well-received Luke Treadaway – and Honey – a universally praised Imogen Poots.

Most though, see only a disturbing portrait of a relationship gone wrong and a superb production of a classic play.

“The play can sometimes be overplayed as a ripe melodramatic psychodrama”, writes Shenton, “but not here: it all feels too plausibly, unbearably real. As a result, it is utterly heartbreaking.”

“Macdonald has presided over something truly draining”, gasps an exhausted Campbell, supporting himself upon an equally battered and bruised Lukowski, who just has enough energy left to praise this revival’s “horrible, vertiginous sense of fast-moving tragedy, of crashing descent”.

“That Albee’s runway hit still has the power to grip and chill audiences — most especially with the unexpectedly tender and hopeful final image — is a tribute to the shared vision of a production team honoring a master”, concludes David Benedict (Variety).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Is it any good?

Five stars from The Stage. Five stars from the Guardian. Five stars from the Telegraph, from the Independent, from the Standard. And glowing reviews from across the pond. Yeah, it’s good. It’s really good.

As Cavendish asserts, “it’s as if the West End has been dragged out of hibernation by some blood-stained, howling predator”.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? On this evidence, we all are.

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