Edward Albee’s first short play, The Zoo Story, premiered in Germany in a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 1959. Albee admired Beckett and shared his taste for the absurd, along with a love of music hall and vaudeville. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a grotesque expansion of the familiar comic double act, given an absurdist twist and pummelled to fit a classic, naturalistic set-up: the unfulfilled marriage. Director Lindsay Posner deploys these influences effectively through the dynamics of the play, especially via the rhythms of the dialogue (even though, on a pre-press night, tempos occasionally faltered).
George and Martha have finessed their patter over 23 lacerating years of wedded blistering. Their young guests, Nick and Honey, become the unwitting fall guys to the older couple’s private routines, and unwilling audience to an excoriating exposition of a relationship in which love is indistinguishable from hate. As their early-hours, alcohol-fuelled encounter develops, though, the boundaries between the couples become blurred. Are Nick and Honey the image of what George and Martha once were? Are George and Martha are the prediction of what Nick and Honey will become or, terrifyingly, of what any of us might become if we settle for a life based on illusions?
Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora in Downton Abbey) is superb as Martha, delivering whip-sharp dialogue, making every vicious, emotional punchline land well below George’s (and, later, Nick’s) belt. Without sentimentality she opens the cracks in her character’s carapace to reveal how her love-hate world centres on George. The tragedy for both of them, suggested through Dougray Scott’s performance (initially stuttering, but increasingly assured), is that George’s world centres on himself. Charles Aitken’s Nick, like his character, is strong in parts but not yet fully formed, while Gina Bramhill’s Honey conveys depths beyond first-impression shallows. In this world of illusions, only the brave or the mad are not afraid to face reality.