Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: expect the unexpected

Sarah Slimani (Martha), Lydia Feerick (Honey) and Adam Simpson (Nick), in rehearsals for Fourth Wall's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Sarah Slimani (Martha), Feerick (Honey) and Adam Simpson (Nick), in rehearsals for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

talks to the director and cast of Fourth Wall’s upcoming production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

You couldn’t have been brought up in my household and not have been a fan of Elizabeth Taylor. Before even seeing any of her films my mother had firmly set a precedent that if I wasn’t a fan, I certainly wasn’t to mention it in front of her. I luckily became a fan girl very quickly, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became a personal favourite.

Pleasant though that may be, the cast of Fourth Wall’s upcoming production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? both share in and are hesitant about my enthusiasm. Sarah Slimani, playing Martha, certainly shares in my love for the film, but hopes to draw little comparison between their two Marthas. “She does it differently, she does it in a Liz Taylor way, she has an American accent from the 1950s, and she smokes throughout the film which completely changes her performance.” I share in this sentiment. For one, theatre and film are very different mediums. Penny Babakhani, the director, emphasises that these are “two different worlds”. “I love seeing plays adapted as films, but I’m also adamant that they’re two very different media items”.

Much of the brilliance of any adaptation of one of Albee’s greatest works is the text itself. Babakhani certainly agrees. “Every time I read it I just fall more and more in love with it. I think you can say that the characters are all pretty horrible people, but despite that there’s something relatable in all of them, and that even though you might not want to admit it, there’s something in each of them that you recognise in yourself. It’s got some gorgeous language, and it’s so incredibly complex.”  Feerick, playing Honey, particularly likes this play because of the extent to which it explores characters. “It deconstructs every single character at multiple points in the play. The setup is very simple. It’s just these characters and their stories”.

Adam Simpson (Nick) and Sasoon Moskofian (George), in rehearsals for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Adam Simpson (Nick) and Sasoon Moskofian (George), in rehearsals for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Albee’s characters are certainly compelling. Slimani explains the two couples as “two ends of the extreme”. “Honey and Nick are strained on the inside, but the perfect picture on the outside, whilst with George and Martha, first you can’t understand how they’re together, but they do love each other and they do understand each other.”

George and Martha are arguably one of the most compellingly destructive couples in theatre. Slimani argues that there’s “too much honestly” in their relationship. Sasoon Moskofian, playing George, adds that they are “very transparent about what they think about each other”. During rehearsals, Moskofian and Slimani continue to give real effort to their performances, to create that electric tension that sets the play alight.

Babakhani argues that one of the most significant differences between the original text and its most famous adaptation is that the play is actually far more political. “The audience will be surprised by how much more political the play is, that is something that Albee complained about when the film was first made, because it was whitewashed of his political gripes.”

Babakhani and her cast have plenty in the way of discussion about the text. “It’s not that this version is the ‘right version’”, she says. This seems to sum up the woes central to the overhanging success of its film adaptation. To consider any interpretation of Albee’s text to be the ‘right version’, and to expect all productions to be the same, seems a very narrow minded and foolish perception of theatre as a whole. Enthusiastic though I may be about the film, I’ll certainly be walking into Fourth Wall’s production with a far more open mind, ready to enjoy a different interpretation of Albee’s great play.

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