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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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?

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