Theatre Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – Va Va Vitriol, Or Four Crying Out Loud

October 17, 2022

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? / Directed by Sylvaine Strike / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg

 

Wolf Britz’ set design for Edward Albee’s examination of success, failure, dysfunction and dominance is pink, flowing and diaphanous. As the play’s three acts unfurl, it becomes clear that the draped fabric is the only thing on stage that has any tendency to yield…

George (Alan Committie) and Martha (Robyn Scott) – named to recall the Washingtons and so represent the US (and arguably less maladjusted) return home late after a faculty party at the college where George works as an associate professor of history and Martha’s father, who hosted the party, is the president. As such, they have just been reminded of their place, again, as being less than the true upper crust and relying on powerful connections to achieve whatever prominence they enjoy. That last may not be true, but it’s an unavoidable notion. As they try to relax, they settle into their default setting – bickering that, even early on, wanders a line from bombastic, via brittle, to brutal.

Into such an atmosphere, they welcome – that’s the wrong word; they submit to seeing, following a request from Martha’s father – a young couple whose relationship seems superficially similar to theirs at first glance (he’s an academic, she is not). It’s a strange arrangement from the start. For one thing, it’s 2am. For another, Nick (Sanda Shandu) and his wife Honey (Berenice Barbier) seem even less keen to be there than the elder couple are to host them, meaning that to start with, the barbs George and Martha are tossing about with impunity – they are clearly inured to the effect of mere insults – are often taken to heart by their visitors, and the only reason the gathering continues is because of the pressure felt by everyone to stay in their superior’s good books.

Soon, though, it feels like George and Martha enjoy having an audience, as it opens up new opportunities to hurt each other and to test their individual wits on people they haven’t yet alienated. And whether Nick and Honey stick around because they feel they have no choice or because they are weirdly stimulated by their hosts’ dark energy (and the endless supply of alcohol on offer), they remain in it – as does an entranced audience – for the long run.

With exactly the same dialogue, it is possible to give this piece a range of possible tones. Director Sylvaine Strike’s choice to encourage her cast to play it for laughs produces rich returns. Note: these are not comfortable laughs, and it’s almost guaranteed that you wouldn’t like any of the comments made directed at you or someone you love. But Committie’s comic timing is honed to perfection thanks to his more regular gig as a comedian, and everyone else is as good here. Scott is a whirlwind – Bette Davis after a couple of Red Bulls – with her character’s manic intensity matched by the actress’ control of expression and movement. Shandu’s animated facial expressions give his navigation of Nick’s narrative – duelling egos with George; confusing chemistry with Martha; care for his ailing spouse – extra colour. Surrounded by all this firepower, and in the smallest role in terms of solo script pages, Barbier would have done well to simply hold her own. But she does considerably better than that, making her character both a comic focal point – Honey’s hysterical laugh is almost worth the price of admission alone – and the most sensitive gauge of the emotional tension in the room. It’s a brilliant performance regardless, and an astounding one for someone making their professional stage debut.

Good choices and better collective interpretation mean that the three-hour running time doesn’t feel like a long shift. And the story’s more illusory aspects, around which conclusions may vary, have the effect of inspiring fascinated chatter during the dual interviews rather than being distracting dramatic devices.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? sees unlikeable people destroy what little decorum they began their association with – and doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what is still to come in each of their lives. It should inspire revulsion and a desire to shake off the memory of your association with, particularly, George and Martha. Instead, though, you’ll likely leave feeling some sort of slightly bewildering mixture of sympathy and gratitude that your own struggles involve – please God – so much less poison than these characters have disgorged.

And if that makes you feel like you need a drink, there’s still plenty left in the decanters on the trolley on stage…

 

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