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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A brilliant revival of the Red Stitch production
Red Stitch Actors' Theatre
by
ABR Arts 05 July 2024

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A brilliant revival of the Red Stitch production
Red Stitch Actors' Theatre
by
ABR Arts 05 July 2024
Kat Stewart as Martha (photograph by Eugene Hyland)
Kat Stewart as Martha (photograph by Eugene Hyland)

The contrast could hardly be more stark. Late last year, Red Stitch’s production of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Sarah Goodes, began life at the company’s eighty-seat theatre nestled in East St Kilda. It sold out, became the talk of the town, and attracted positive reviews. Usually, that’s how things end.

Ben Brooker, reviewing it for ABR Arts, deemed Goodes’s production ‘markedly traditionalist, eschewing any peeling back of Albee’s text in the search for new meanings. Rather, it attempts to make a virtue of sticking to the basics, which is to say leaving the play firmly within its original setting and letting the playwright’s sparkling dialogue speak for itself.’

Now, enterprisingly and let us hope not for the last time, Red Stitch has mounted a revival in the CBD, at the grand old 800-seat Comedy Theatre. It is a welcome and audacious step.

Edward Albee, born in 1928, seems to have been famous and controversial right from the beginning. His transformation – from changeling to princely adoptee in the home of Reed and Frances Albee, from military cadet to drop-out, from Wunderkind to Broadway pariah, from iconoclastic scourge to recipient of a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 – is one of the grand stories of American theatre.

Because he wrote excoriating and discomfiting plays, Albee was sometimes out of fashion, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, but late successes such as Three Tall Women (1991) and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia (2002) won him further laurels and new audiences.

The gestation of Virginia Woolf is more familiar – legendary even – than that of most other modern plays, helped in part by the sensational title, famously borrowed from a line Albee saw on a bar mirror in Greenwich village. Virginia Woolf was Albee’s first three-act play, but The Zoo Story (1960), a one-acter, had earned him renown, and a certain notoriety (the homophobic times, and Time magazine, did not help), and it ran for 582 performances.

Virginia Woolf opened at the Billy Rose Theatre on 13 October 1962 and ran for 664 performances before transferring to London, where Leonard Woolf saw and enjoyed it (Albee, always punctilious, had written to Virginia Woolf’s widower, seeking permission to use her name in the title). Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen were the first George and Martha. Both won Tony Awards, as did the director, Alan Schneider. The work itself won the Tony Award for Best Play.

Warner Brothers, in a sweet irony, paid Albee $500,000 for the film rights, plus ten per cent of the gross – in 1963!

As Ben Brooker remarked, ‘Like moths, actors of a certain vintage are drawn to its bright flame.’ Bette Davis, whom Albee had in mind when he created Martha, was appalled when Ernest Lehman cast Elizabeth Taylor – ‘Miss Taylor, this beautiful, gorgeous young woman’ – for the film. Stage Marthas have included Diana Rigg, Colleen Dewhurst, and Kate Reid. Celebrated Georges include Ben Gazzara, Bill Irwin, and actor-playwright Tracy Letts, whose unusually macho and menacing performance rightly won him the 2013 Tony Award.

Almost unbelievably, Mike Nichols and Elaine May – legendary improvisatory satirists of the 1950s and early 1960s – reunited to play George and Martha in New Haven, in 1980.

Harvey Zielinski as Nick Emily Goddard as Honey David Whiteley as George and Kat Stewart as Martha (photograph by Eugene Hyland)Harvey Zielinski as Nick, Emily Goddard as Honey, David Whiteley as George and Kat Stewart as Martha (photograph by Eugene Hyland)

Brooker reminds us in his review that Albee’s drama has fared well in Australia. The AusStage database lists sixty-five productions. John Sumner directed the Australian première in 1964, with Bunney Brook as Martha and Brian James as George. I first saw Virginia Woolf in 1982, with Robyn Nevin, Bruce Myles, James Laurie, and Genevieve Picot, directed by Roger Hodgman.

The Red Stitch revival features the original cast: Kat Stewart as Martha; David Whiteley as George; Emily Goddard as Honey; and Harvey Zielinski as Nick. On opening night they were phenomenally primed, as if this was their 664th performance. The only glitch was an audible splutter or two from the relatively unobtrusive amplification, but this was soon corrected.

The three-hour play was performed without cuts, unlike Mike Nichols’s celebrated 1966 film, which shaved an hour off the text, eliminating Martha’s first husband (the hunky lawnmower, soon clipped) and trimming Martha’s great aria in Act Three about their imaginary son. The play is performed with two intervals even (time for another little nipper, badly needed after the tumult on stage). Purists may miss the scene between George and Martha in Act Three, when Honey hears chimes and prompts George to conceive his filicidal plan to punish Martha for her indiscretion about ‘the blond-eyed, blue-haired bugger’, but we know that Albee decided to cut this scene in 2006.

All the profanities are there – even ‘Jesus H. Christ’, which opens the play (as Martha beholds the domestic dump that is their home at New Carthage). Considered blasphemous, it had to be sacrificed, so desperate were Jack Warner, Ernest Lehman, and Nichols to placate the censorious Catholics, as we learn from Philip Gefter’s informative new book, Cocktails with George and Martha: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and the making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Ithaka). Nichols, in a masterstroke, took along Jacqueline Kennedy (whom he was dating at the time) to a clerical screening. At the end, Jackie, right on cue, purred: ‘Jack would have loved this film’, and all was well.

Kat Stewart as Martha and David Whiteley as George (photograph by Eugene Hyland)Kat Stewart as Martha and David Whiteley as George (photograph by Eugene Hyland)

The zingers are all there – too many of them to savour in one sitting. ‘Dashed hopes and good intentions.’ ‘I swear … if you existed, I’d divorce you.’ ‘You can’t afford to lose good liquor, not on your salary, not on an associate professor’s salary.’ ‘I said I was impressed, Martha … What do you want me to do, throw up?’

It’s a feature of this faithful production that none of these artful and almost anti-Wildean witticisms is thrown away facilely or parodically. The language, the performances, each movement, each wink or glance, each sodden motive or realisation, are all deeply felt and lived. It’s a remarkable achievement with such a demanding text, one that could easily tip over into vaudeville or farce. Grudgingly or not, we are made to believe in this flawed, haunted, fractious quartet.

Central here – right at the meat of things, as it were – are George and Martha: ‘sad, sad’. Over the course of three hours and three acts (‘Fun and Games’, ‘Walpurgisnacht’, ‘The Exorcism’), we learn much about these endlessly sparring and interdependent college creations: Martha, the ‘liquor-ridden’ daughter of a New England college president in New Carthage; and George, her husband, the disappointed historian whose moment of departmental glory came during World War II, when many of his colleagues were away, only to return, none of them slain (‘Not one son-of-a-bitch got killed’ – surely the blackest moment in the play). Their rows, their endless verbal assaults – what they do to themselves and each other – dominate the play and demand tremendous vocal stamina and actorly intelligence from the two principals.

This, of course, is a famous study of a toxic marriage – Albee’s everlasting, bitter subject. We know that Albee, though only thirty-two when he wrote the play, had been in a long, vitriolic and alcoholic relationship with William Flanagan, a composer and music critic. Poet Richard Howard, who knew them at the time, said that Albee and Flanagan were ‘not pleasant together when they were drunk … there was a lot of jockeying for power in their relationship’. In certain circles they were known as the Sisters Grimm.

In a brilliant conceit at the start of this production, we meet George and Martha on the Juliet balcony to the left of the stage. They are on their way home after one of Daddy’s parties. Martha is rather wobbly. It’s two am after all, and the play won’t end until dawn.

Goodes is brilliantly served by Kat Stewart and David Whiteley, who give two of the finest stage performances this reviewer has ever seen. No one is spared; no nuance is ignored; no retort, however sotto voce, is lost. Whiteley is superb in the ‘Bergin’ speech, when George tells of a schoolboy friend who inadvertently killed both his parents and mispronounced ‘Bourbon’. Whiteley’s mastery of the long, complicated scene at the end, when George kills off the son and intones the Dies Irae, is complete. George, finally – not Martha, thrashing and wailing – is the ringmaster, may have been so, slyly, all along. His quiet song, at the end, as he comforts Martha, is tragic, beautiful.

Stewart is magnetic as Martha: skittish, flirty, vulgar, irate, kittenish. Her command of the wide stage is total, the physical comedy hilarious as Martha seduces and appals. Vocally, Stewart is unflagging, braying one moment then murmuring the next. Never was she better than in Act Three when she extols her missing husband (‘George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me – whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy’).

Albee is always political. He said the play was about the decline of America. Not for nothing are George and Martha named after the first couple of American democracy, as Albee made clear in an interview: ‘Indeed, I did name the two lead characters George and Martha because there is contained in the play … an attempt to examine the success or failure of American principles.’

(What, we wonder, would Albee, who died eight years ago, make of the misfit republic now? Perhaps he would go into musicals.)

It will be lost on few people that the play had its première three days before the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Armageddon came perilously close. Then, in Act Two, there is a further clue when George, bored by the circus, reads a book while Martha seduces Nick. The text he chooses, we recognise, is Oswald Spengler’s The 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.’

Kat Stewart as Martha Emily Goddard as Honey and Harvey Zielinski as Nick (photograph by Eugene Hyland)Kat Stewart as Martha, Emily Goddard as Honey, and Harvey Zielinski as Nick (photograph by Eugene Hyland)

The two younger players are excellent. Harvey Zielinski’s Nick is suitably blank and attentive, and his innate cynicism shines through. Emily Goddard gives a bravura performance as the bouffant, bibulous Honey. Tremulous at first, high-pitched and rightly nervous in this terrifying company, she reveals great depths of bottled emotion as the long night wears on, especially in the dance scene, when she exhorts the murderous George (‘Violence, violence!’). Honey’s orgiastic dance to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major almost brings down the house.

The set is apropos and versatile. Goodes says in the program notes that she and production designer Harriet Oxley ‘were keen to explore a Suburban Baroque influence – a space filled with textures, patterns and faded velvets’. The set is framed with proscenium curtains à la 1962. Matt Scott’s lighting design illuminates the curtains in primary colours to signal lurches in this relentlessly unstill drama.

The bar, of course, is pivotal. Goodes and Oxley create an altar of the bar when George lights the candles and prepares to sacrifice their son following Martha’s indiscretion. This is done slowly, operatically.

The ease with which the four players sustain the energy, the drama, the baleful comedy is remarkable. There wasn’t a single longueur all night, nor a sign of boredom or restlessness from the opening-night audience. At the end, after George’s revelation and Martha’s collapse, there is a magnificent stillness – daringly extended by the actors. All of Martha’s illusions have been dashed, like those ‘good intentions’.

This must rate as one of the great opening nights in the history of Australian theatre. Apart from the fireworks, the bravura performances, the production subtly alters our sense, our appreciation, of this so familiar play’s greatness: its acuity, its sorry humanity, its radical satire, its wicked pleasurableness.

The revival surely marks a new chapter in Red Stitch’s admirable history. Now we can only hope for more Albee from this fully attuned actors’ ensemble – perhaps his subsequent masterpiece, A Delicate Balance (1966), with Kat Stewart as Clare (that other great mordant alcoholic) and David Whiteley as Tobias.

Next, though, Red Stitch should take this exemplary production to Broadway, where it would doubtless elicit the same grateful, exultant ovation it rightly drew on Wednesday night.


 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Red Stitch Actors Studio) continues at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until 21 July 2024. Performance attended: 3 July.

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