If George and Martha are ‘exercising’, then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an Olympian workout for its actors. Over a hefty three-and-a-half-hour running time, the staple of the American canon depicts the middle-aged couple battling each other in a relentless series of psychological games and elaborate humiliations in front of unwitting guests.
Anisha Fields’ set design forgoes the usual clutter of their lived-in apartment, opting instead for Scandinavian sparseness. A carpeted square is laid into an expansive parquet floor, furnished with just the essentials. In the Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round space, it’s an open-plan arena, exposing and intimate at the same time.
It puts all our focus on the actors. It’s often difficult to countenance why the guests, Nick and Honey, stay in this toxic atmosphere as long as they do, but Joseph Tweedale does an excellent job of mapping Nick’s slide from accomplished gentleman to wasted, randy jock, half-enjoying the twisted games he’s dragged into.
Pooky Quesnel gives Martha a daydreamy, sing-song quality, regressing into an infantile mewl as she gets increasingly drunk. It’s Mark Meadows’ George, permanently hunched but with a nimble gait, who gets to gnaw the most scenery (and spit it back out). And Francesca Henry gives the underwritten Honey a strange, alien quality.
The play is a thing of its time and some of its venom is neutralised by its florid hamminess. But in choosing to let it stand as a kind of time capsule, director David Mercatali draw out its bizarre, operatic energy.