Nobody mines alternating notes of fury and desolation as well as Imelda Staunton. Nor strikes such opposing forces of resilience and hopelessness.
After her devastating turn as Momma Rose in the musical Gypsy, in which she played a mother working out her own lost hopes of stage stardom through her daughters, Staunton is now back in the West End with an even more ferocious howl of existential crisis as Martha in a revival of Edward Albee’s brutal and bracing marital drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
She once again plays a woman locked in a bitter, co-dependent relationship. This time it is with her husband George, six years her junior, an academic in the history department of a minor American university. But he’s not, as she constantly reminds him, in charge of it, and it’s a college where – to add to the wound of his inadequacy – her own father is president.
The play follows a long evening’s journey into daylight as they return home from a faculty party for a nightcap, and one more bout of mutual antagonism. But she’s invited a newly arrived biology lecturer called Nick at the college, who is just 28, and his young wife Honey to join them for a (very) late night drink. The younger couple becomes at first unwitting spectators and then desperate new participants in the deadly war of attrition and hostility that seems to both bind the hosts together and also constantly threatens to destroy them.
Nobody, though, is going to go down without a fight, and the special thrill of James Macdonald’s finely calibrated production is just how delicately the balance of power keeps shifting between each of them. Even the younger couple, who got married when she had what turned out to be a phantom pregnancy, are not easily beaten into submission. The husband is played by Luke Treadaway as a strutting, confident peacock, while Imogen Poots as his vulnerable wife also reveals an independent spirit, even though they are both subject to ritual humiliations by their hosts.
But it is the desperate sense of overwhelming reality brought by Staunton and Conleth Hill (as George) that anchors the play’s dark, sour portrait of a marriage bound together by repeated games and rituals.
Hill is in every way a match for Staunton in the ugly word and mind games that Martha and George use to sustain their poisonous relationship; but there are also glimpses of an underlying kindness, affection and amusement that has kept them together.
On this night, however, part of the game will unravel, and – by the end – Staunton’s howl of anguish is palpable.
The play can sometimes be overplayed as a ripe melodramatic psychodrama, but not here: it all feels too plausibly, unbearably real. As a result, it is utterly heartbreaking.