Mrs Chrisparkle was more like my carer than my wife as I slowly shuffled into the Comedy – I mean Harold Pinter – Theatre to see Saturday’s matinee of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’d been feeling lousy with a virus since midweek, but on Good Friday I finally flopped and it was only the prospect of seeing Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill get the guests – and the fact that I didn’t want to waste £180 worth of theatre tickets – that made me drag myself out of my sick bed and limp to Leicester Square.
“So, what’s the play all about”, Mrs C asked me in my occasional lucid moments on the train into town. “Oh… two older people have two younger people round for drinks”. Well, that’s not wrong, is it? “And that’s what makes it one of the 20th century’s best plays, is it?” “Well, it’s symbolic as well.” And after that, I think I nodded off. Tracts, theses, chapters, essays and more have been written as to what it’s all about, so I’m hardly likely (or indeed intelligent enough) to encapsulate it in a quick paragraph or two, particularly with my manflu. University types George and Martha (the original President and First Lady, as my English teacher Bruce Ritchie liked to point out) verbally tear each other limb from limb through endless bottles of late-night liquor. He both plays up to and despises his own personal failures, which she endlessly mocks too; he also humiliates her for her drunkenness and tendency to keep her dress over her head. There’s no point both exercising and exorcising these themes unless they have an audience; so, the arrival of new boy Nick and his ineffectual wife Honey is the perfect opportunity for them to unleash their catalogue of fun and games. Not to mention their son, of course… which Martha unfortunately does… which hurtles the relationship further towards its own endgame.
As well as being an examination of a breakdown of a marriage, it’s an examination of the breakdown of American Society, particularly its culture – no, it is, honestly. George quotes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West: “and the West, encumbered by crippling alliances, and burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events, must…eventually…fall.” Cold war? USA v. USSR? Or George v. Martha? George describes the university campus variously as Illyria, Penguin Island (the dystopian satiric version of Anatole France I presume, and not the tourist attraction off the coast of Perth), Gomorrah, New Carthage, (after all, George does say he was born around the time of the Punic Wars) and Parnassus (home of the Muses – Nick doesn’t get it). The very title is a pun on Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, which they sang at the dreadful sounding party the evening before, a really self-conscious pompous way of combining pop culture with something more literary. They all think the song’s a scream. I think it makes them look like smartasses.
It’s structured as a three-act play, each with its own title: “Fun and Games”, “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism”. Fun and Games – well, that doesn’t need explaining, as they ritualistically humiliate anyone and everyone. Walpurgisnacht is the eve of the feast day of St Walpurga, a celebration of sorcery and witches with bonfires and dancing; and we all know how that kind of thing can get out of hand. The Exorcism deals with the aftermath of the “death” of their son. With no sub plot, all set in the same place at the same time, it observes the classical unities (which is nice) – and even the death of the son isn’t seen; George reports that Crazy Billy from Western Union delivered a telegram. Coming in at three hours it’s a long play, but even so, I note that this production cuts the significant scene where Honey confesses to George that she’s scared of having children and doesn’t want any. I feel that does a disservice to the character of Honey, making her more vapidly inconsequential and less of an individual with their own concerns and problems. But, then, let’s face it, Honey isn’t really who’s on display here.
And that’s why everyone is in the auditorium: Imelda Staunton as Martha, and Conleth Hill as George. I can’t think of anyone more appropriate for the role of Martha as Ms Staunton, and from the moment she appears, cursing her head off, you know you’re in for a treat. Aggressive Martha, intimate Martha, cutesypie Martha, dismissive Martha, mocking Martha, and even that rare beast appreciative Martha, she’s in total control of the character, even if her character isn’t in control of anything much. It’s a supreme performance, just as you knew it would be. Conleth Hill is new to me – although looking at his biography I’ve no idea how that can be – and he’s absolutely superb at playing George’s irritating verbal games. As Nick says, he sets each question up as a trap so that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and there’s no quarter given as he pounces on any perceived weakness. I’ve no idea if this was intentional but both Mrs C and I thought there was an element of Donald Trump about the throwaway delivery of some of his lines that made them even more generally unpleasant. And you sense the threat behind anything he says or does is really tangible – you wouldn’t cross this man.
Luke Treadaway is great as the much-toyed-with Nick, aggressively by George, sexually by Martha; a perfect physical representation of that All-American Hero but with too many insecurities and flaws to carry it off. There’s not a lot that the character can do apart from attempt to hold his own in argument or conflict with his hosts, both together and individually, and Mr Treadaway achieves this extremely well. Imogen Poots is delightful as the vacuous Honey, performing her interpretative dance to the second movement of Beethoven 7, slowly realising that George’s round of Get The Guests is aimed at her, and regularly teetering off to be sick in the john.
But it’s those endless rounds of verbal fencing between George and Martha that remain with you after this production, and the fact that they perform them with such split-second accuracy of timing and expression is an amazing achievement. James Macdonald’s wonderful production runs at the Comedy – I mean Harold Pinter – until May 27th.
P. S. I note that the language has been beefed up a bit. When George throws open the door to reveal the arrival of Nick and Honey, in the original version Martha was yelling “Screw You” at him. In this production that’s been replaced by a simple “F**k!” The F-word appears in a few other scenes too. It was very effective – if you’re waiting to come in to a party and the door opens to reveal your hostess screaming “F**k!” at the top of her voice, there’s no way you can pretend that you didn’t know you were in for a rough time.
Production photos by Johan Persson