With three local productions on the way, the mood is right for Edward Albee’s psychological drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, writes Rosalie Higson
ACT one is called Fun and Games, act two is Walpurgisnacht ( Witches’ Night), act three is The Exorcism. Edward Albee’s drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a big, bad play, notorious for the angry interplay between George and Martha, Honey and Nick. In a remarkable instance of synchronicity, three productions of it will soon open across Australia.
On August 4, director Benedict Andrews’s production will open at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre. Two weeks later the Melbourne Theatre Company’s version opens, directed by Peter Evans. Then, on October 1, it will be the turn of artistic director Michael Gow and the Queensland Theatre Company.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered in New York in 1962 and was immediately acknowledged as a contemporary classic.
But what makes this acrid drama about love and redemption the play of the year, apparently, in 2007?
The directors agree that their interest stems partly from the political climate, but also from the play’s inherent strengths: bravura parts, razor wit, passion, catharsis and ultimate redemption, and three hours of performance time to let it all sink in.
‘‘ It’s about time we did some marathons,’’ Gow says. ‘‘ We’re so used to 90 minutes, no intervals. I think the knock- down, drag-’ em- out marathon event has been missing, and I love that sense of going on this massive journey with these people. You do have a sense that the sun comes up at the end of the show.’’
Albee was a young man living in the West Village when he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first big work. Its explosion on Broadway — it had a first run of more than 600 performances — made it one of the defining events in the birth of the cultural and social changes of the 1960s.
The play flew in the face of the prevailing conservatism, but Albee had no truck with peace, love and freedom. He preferred to flay his characters, peeling back layers of propriety, defences, illusions and lies until he got to the bleeding, bloody heart of the play.
Albee doesn’t do entertainment, he said in Sydney last year: ‘‘ This is serious stuff we’re talking about. The function of art is not commerce. The function of commerce is to make money; you don’t criticise people, you don’t give them anything to make them think too hard. That’s the difference between commerce and art: in commerce everybody ends up happy; in art everybody ends up wiser. Serious art is there to make people think more profoundly.’’
Albee first came to notice with The Zoo Story, a confrontation between America’s middle class and its outcasts. But the initial shock of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was considerable, as the bitter, psychosexual battles between history professor George and his voracious wife Martha, and their hapless guests, newly appointed biology tutor Nick and his timid wife Honey, played out.
As the booze flows, George and Martha’s darker impulses emerge, and a bewildered Nick and Honey struggle to keep up with the increasingly vicious mind games.
The play begins late at night. Everyone is already drunk or well on the way: hard liquor has an important role as catalyst here. ( Albee took the play’s name from graffiti in a Greenwich Village bar and has said he was drinking heavily at the time.)
Evans, MTC’s associate director, has suggested Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? every year since 2002. ‘‘ It seems to me that its time has come around again for a couple of reasons. It’s a cracking play, but certainly there’s a feeling that people are looking at America again,’’ he says.
‘‘ And when I went back into it I found a kind of rage at the heart of it. Albee has a kind of deep disappointment at what the American experiment had become.
‘‘ It’s a real product of the ’ 60s, this play, about puncturing the illusion of the American dream. When Arthur Miller was doing it like a gentleman, Albee come along more like a punk.’’
Evans says he is not surprised that there will be three productions this year. ‘‘ It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and, at one level, any time a director can get their hands on it and have a crack at it, I don’t believe there are many who wouldn’t,’’ he says.
Audiences certainly want it. The 2004 Broadway revival — directed by Anthony Page, with Kathleen Turner as Martha and Bill Irwin as George — won two Tony awards. The success was repeated in London’s West End and the production toured five cities across the US this year. The career of former film noir sexpot Turner, now 53, was resurrected.
Entertainment Weekly said the play was ‘‘ a giddy, vicious thrill, one of the most dazzling displays of verbal blood sport’’.
‘‘ I guess we’re all thinking it’s timely,’’ says Gow, who also puts forward ‘‘ a very cynical economic reason’’ for doing it: ‘‘ It’s a great classic with only four actors. It’s no joke; in the conditions we work in, that matters: to find great plays that we can still afford to put on.’’
For Belvoir in Sydney, Andrews deliberately chose a young cast — Marton Csokas, Catherine McClements, Robin McLeavy and Simon Stone — and hard- edged design to avoid a fusty, ‘‘ bookcase and cardigan’’ reinvention of ’ 60s academe. Andrews has been re- reading mid20th- century American drama, including Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s plays, for a couple of years.
‘‘ On one level I am really interested in these pieces that were born in post- war, expansionist
America,’’ he says. ‘‘ They’re political pieces from the moment when America was really starting to expand. And now . . . we are absolutely an American colony, as the world is, and I’m interested to look at that perspective.’’
Andrews is not interested in American accents or sets. ‘‘ I want to make it a contemporary reading about rich, elegant, First World Australian people. So we keep all the American references but in the natural voices, which immediately starts to reveal something else.
‘‘ And as you start to work on the play there are other attractions for doing possibly the most aggressive play of the 20th century. It’s fuelled on one level by glee; it’s witty and extremely funny, whether it’s the echoing demonic laughter that George describes as being behind all language or whether it’s just the laughter of this boozy night of letting go. It’s funny, charming and witty. But also a savage Oedipal nightmare: Albee calls it a beautiful paradox.’’
Many people know Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from the Oscar- winning 1966 Mike Nichols film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; part of its success came from the voyeristic thrill of watching a famously combative real- life couple duke it out on film. But one huge difference between the film and the play is its humour.
‘‘ I suspect the play has got funnier over time,’’ Evans says. ‘‘ I think the humour has come out more because we are less shocked. When it first happened, of course, when he first did it, he had lots of f--- yous and motherf--- ers in there, and then the censors made him change them to screw. And then when they made the film all those got changed to goddammits,’’ he says.
‘‘ In fact, Mike Nichols’s film changed the censorship laws in the US, they changed the way ratings were given out.
‘‘ The film Blow- Up came out the same year and it was all deeply shocking.’’
Gow also points out that there is much more to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than rage and sexual innuendo.
‘‘ Part of the thrill of doing theatre for me is that I don’t know all the answers until I get there, but I’m certainly approaching it that George and Martha adore each other. There is an enormous reservoir of emotion behind all that game playing, and that to me is what’s so wonderful about the two of them,’’ he says. ‘‘ And that’s one of the things I want to bring to it. People say it’s a kind of 20th- century equivalent of ( August) Strindberg’s Dance of Death, but I find Strindberg a much more hate- filled writer than Albee is. I think he writes wonderfully about love, because it’s not sentimental.’’
Gow’s cast at the QTC is Kerith Atkinson, Scott Johnson, Andrea Moor and Andrew McFarlane. ‘‘ We haven’t done a retro number on it,’’ Gow says. ‘‘ I even have the question, which I’m taking to the actors, do we need American accents? There’s something rhythmically American about the language, but I don’t know if we need to put on that mask.’’
Gow is also interested in the sexual politics that play out against the show’s campus background. ‘‘ It seems like every transaction, even the most intellectual, is somehow sexual, and the university that they are in seems to be based on that,’’ he says. Albee has said he is happy to say the unsayable. ‘‘ He’s quite explicit,’’ Gow says. ‘‘ The whole progress through that university seems to be based on who you slept with. And we live in such a self- conscious age about that stuff; Helen Garner copped it on The First Stone. There’s such a sensitivity to all that now, but Albee’s being honest and saying you can’t deny it.’’
Evans is primarily leaving the play in period, and making much of the generational differences between the two couples, played by Wendy Hughes, Garry McDonald, Stephen Phillips and Alison Bell. ‘‘ But we are abstracting the space,’’ he says. ‘‘ There was a review from the very first production that said this play could very easily be on a bare stage. And while we’re not quite on a bare stage, we’ve abstracted the space to let the characters pop out on it.’’
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won’t pack the punch it once did. Before John Clark’s 1964 production opened at the Old Tote in Sydney, newspapers warned audiences to expect ‘‘ emotional vivisection’’. On opening night, the vice squad dropped in to check for blasphemy and obscenities. Disappointed, they withdrew and left the play in peace. In Brisbane, considerable numbers of the audience walked out.
Audiences have changed but Albee’s character study of the couples is timeless. ‘‘ What happens is that the seeming innocence and repression of Nick and Honey’s relationship gets exposed,’’ Evans says. ‘‘ Seemingly, it’s so mid- western and proper until you see how oppressive it is, and how dishonest as well.
‘‘ In fact, inside the hideousness there’s a deep kind of love between George and Martha. And with the invention of the child and the death of that child, I actually find the play hopeful. There’s something vigorously sexy about their relationship. Whereas Nick and Honey are a bit tragic. I know which one I’d want to be in, which one would be more fun, although I don’t know if my liver could handle it.’’
Generational differences: Garry McDonald and Wendy Hughes will play George and Martha in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Art imitates life: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?