Brace yourself for a dialogue of quick-wit and verbal interrogation. Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill go at it full of guts and poise in Edward Albee’s 1962 play, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I mean, that’s what I saw when I sat in the front row of the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Hill and Staunton are accompanied by Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots for a sweeping display of word wars and mockery, set in the living room of a home in New England. Both leads perform as married couple George and Matha in what appears to be a life consumed of fickle domestic fights which get louder as the hour moves on.
Director, James Macdonald was smart to select this first-class cast for the Harold Pinter Theatre on Panton Street. At 2 am, Martha invites Nick, the new biology professor (Treadaway) of her father’s university, to their home. The opening scene is a verbal farce and Staunton and Hill hold it down so well, the audience can’t help themselves but laugh. Nick and his wife Honey (Poots) enter, and immediately they are probed. You almost feel sorry for Nick and Honey for doing the right thing and saying ‘yes’ to the kind invitation, but not everyone wants to play the couple’s sick game.
The characters are distinctive and completely different from one another. Staunton’s Martha is a fearless firecracker who hisses and roars, while Hill’s Geoge is sharp, snappy, sarcastic and feverishly aloof. Together they are a nasty, vulgar and dark combination, but individually, they are made up of different components of vicious.
Staunton made her mark as Best Actress in the musical category of the 2016 Olivier Awards, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she got nominated again for her thrilling performance. Although fearless, stomping and aggressive, there’s a tender and fragile side to Martha, which Staunton effortlessly portrays with the click of her fingers. The world Martha leads with George is like no other and it is a puzzling, ego trip into the dark that Staunton elucidates with exceptional execution.
Hill is startling as George. In one scene you’d think you had George all figured out but in the next Hill powers up George again into something else other than a failing and flagging husband. The ridicule and scathing remarks are so abusive, it’s hard to believe the couple had been married for that long and not murdered each other sooner.
Treadaway and Poots as Nick and Honey, however, are on the other end of this verbal conflict, unaware of what is going on with George and Matha, yet only until the very end does Nick get it. Treadaway is super cool and slick as the young Nick until you see his jaded, selfish and unsympathetic interior, even seduced by Martha who makes numerous passes at him in front of her husband. And Poots is focused as the sweet and innocent Honey, locked into a convenient situation but endlessly longing for a baby.
Tom Pye’s wide living room is roomy enough with adequate single, leather sofas to cater for all four members of the stage, but that’s not the main highlight. The performers do an impressively bang-on job with the intensity and sheer sophistication of its script. There’s a twist to this play, so make sure you pay attention, from start to finish.