Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?

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Edward Albee’s surreal Absurdist play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captured by Castle Theatre Company is a mighty success, punching with vigour, confidence and dark humour. Directed by and Peal D’souza, the audience are invited to be a fly on the wall in the characters’ drunken and spiralling post-party afters. Written in 1962, the play is set in a New England living-room of a dysfunctional married couple (Martha and George) and the play’s heightened naturalism and quick wit exposes a Freudian commentary on the human psyche which tarnishes the idealistic American Dream.

One particularly clever directorial moment appears when Avery and Cochran stand opposite each other with the character of Nick mirroring Martha’s dancing – symptomatic of Martha being Nick’s puppeteer

Performed in the Assembly Rooms Theatre, the set is pillared by a chair, sofa and a chaise longue, anchoring the play to a domestic sphere. With this staging there is an implicit danger of the play becoming static, however, Davidson offshoots this by tactically moving the actors enough for it to be dynamic but not overly frenetic, shifting the actors with a purposeful agenda. This feeds into the play’s greatest strength: all four actors totally embody their characters with true professional conviction. Such naturalism is helped by the relaxed overlapping dialogue (Caryl Churchill-esque) coupled with dramatic pauses and piercing comedy. On one instance, Jay Robinson, as George holds the stage’s tension by deliberately pausing after retelling a story ending with “The boy hasn’t uttered words for thirty years”, to mirror the silence of the boy. Before he aggressively startles both Nick (Ollie Cochran) and the audience by shouting “MARTHA”, to jump us back into his present reality as well as commenting on the failure of communication in the modern day. Robinson and Cochran become increasingly standoffish with each other, reflected in them both standing up opposite each other and leaning on either end of the sofa. Here, the actors are pointing towards how George and Nick want to deny how they see the worst parts of each other in themselves by which I mean the repressed, de-sensitised dark humour and sadistic objectifying of their wives, sickened by sexual undercurrents.

Similarly, Bethan Avery (as Martha) and Estelle Pollard-Cox (as Honey) simultaneously parallel and contrast each other’s characters. With Avery’s whiny complaining of “Why don’t you wanna kiss me?”, regarding George being similar to that of Pollard-Cox’s “You’re always at me when I’m having a good time” to Nick – translating two hurt women, void of emotional fulfilment and desperately yearning to be loved. Such love towards Honey is not offered by the character of Nick with his repeated patting of Honey’s legs as if she is a dog he wants to quieten because as he says, “You’re embarrassing me.” Pollard-Cox is clever in her portrayal of Honey, nervous, clueless and immature with her use of paranoid eye contact, laboured fake smiling and laughing, slow blinking, mouth open slightly wide reinforced by her costuming of a flowery youthful summer dress reinforcing her as childlike. There is one particular tender moment where Pollard-Cox cradles her knees in a foetal position rocking slightly like a baby – with parallels to Martha who calls her father “Daddy”, suggesting both characters suffer from stunted emotional growth. Honey’s dialogue begins as rather simplistic, obvious and surface level but soon progresses into more loaded comments such as “I peel labels”, to which George famously answers “We all peel labels, sweetie”. The audience marvel in Albee’s richly symbolic subtext like George’s line “I am preoccupied with history”, (note he is a history teacher) to which humour Robinson so masterfully teases out achieving supreme comedic effect.

It is student theatre at its best

One stark moment which lends itself to the disharmony of these two marriages is where all the characters attempt to sit on the sofa together, but due to a lack of space George perches on the periphery – emotionally distanced from Martha. Martha repeatedly plays with her wedding ring which reflects her meddling with the marriage by her testing jokes and teasing insults triggering a marriage that is unstable, always at risk of being lost like a ring. Robinson unexpectedly smashes a glass onto the floor, dramatically jolting the audience, and very cleverly the remainder of glass crunches underneath the characters’ feet throughout the final two acts, serving as a haunting reminder of their past violence and previous mistakes. The use of red lighting to signal danger is slightly laboured and one-dimensional, however, the use of a bright yellow light when describing their son is effective in exploiting their exposure of the truth. One particularly clever directorial moment appears when Avery and Cochran stand opposite each other with the character of Nick mirroring Martha’s dancing – symptomatic of Martha being Nick’s puppeteer.

This revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play of serious talent. It is student theatre at its best. Dare I say it is flawless? Congratulations to all the cast and crew.

Image credit: Castle Theatre Company

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