George and Martha return to their comfortable and respectable, middle-class, oak panelled, campus home from a party thrown by Martha’s father, the boss of a New England college. Although it's 2 am, visitors are expected. Martha, prompted by her domineering father, has invited newly appointed lecturer Nick and his mousy wife, Honey, round for a late drink.
It’s pretty soon clear that this middle-class, middle-aged duo cannot agree on anything. Martha and George argue about films, what happened at the party, the role of the new lecturer - the opening volleys in a new battle of a cruel, marital war of attrition that we begin to realise has been rumbling away for years, if not decades - a war that will reach a decisive point by the end of the play.
By the time the guests arrive, George and Martha have already moved on from disagreement and are heavily into trading insults. So much so that, by the time George reluctantly opens the front door, Martha is already yelling ‘Fuck you!’ at him, to the horror of their unsuspecting visitors.
However, undaunted by the presence of guests, and aided by voluminous quantities of alcohol, George and Martha continue their verbal assaults on each other. ‘You make me puke’, says Martha to George. ‘If you existed, I’d divorce you’, she adds. In retaliation, George is equally sarcastic and vitriolic – he imagines her ‘buried up to her neck in cement’ and calls her a ‘monster’. It’s breathtakingly shocking stuff, but we, the audience, find it hard not to laugh as the blistering attacks continue, increasing in their intensity, ferocity and bitterness, eventually escalating into a physical attack when George launches himself on Martha’s throat, thankfully to be saved by the athletic Nick.
But the guests also come within the line of fire as the hosts play a series of ‘games’ during the course of the play. In ‘get the guests’, for example, George is brutally cruel and venomous in relating the reasons for Nick and Honey’s marriage. And Martha is equally merciless in revealing Nick’s alcohol-induced ‘floppiness’ after another game: ‘hump the hostess’.
Still remarkably fresh with surprisingly modern and relevant themes, this version of Edward Albee's 1962 play has already enjoyed a run on Broadway. And if the London audience's reaction is anything to go by, it's destined for considerable success here too. And so it should, because this is a fascinating piece of psychological drama from a Pulitzer prize-winning dramatist, and on that count alone is well worth seeing. But with the advantage of an all-American cast, as well as deft and poignant direction from Anthony Page, it’s a veritable theatrical treat.
Kathleen Turner truly shines as the domineering, mouthy Martha. Her presence on stage is effortlessly magnetic. In the hands of other actors, Martha might easily dominate the proceedings entirely. But rather than competing with the other characterizations, Turner works with them brilliantly, giving them room and utilising the very able support.
Bill Irwin’s snake-like George is an equally forceful portrayal, though not as presumptively or obviously so. His serpent-like pointing gestures - striking and then recoiling for fear of retaliation - gradually build into the final ‘coup de grace’ at the end of the play, where George is in a sense the victor, if such a thing is possible in a relationship of this kind.
I also enjoyed Mireille Enos’s performance as Honey. Drunk and in the background for most of the play, her creatively off-beat delivery seemed odd at first, but soon captivated attention particularly during a very funny dance sequence.
On the technical side, John Lee Beatty's strikingly detailed set exudes homely, middle-class comfort and respectability, providing the perfect contrast for the shockingly powerful matrimonial terrorism that the play describes.
With a running time one minute short of 3 hours (with 2 intervals), it’s one of the longest plays I’ve seen in some time. But this is no endurance test – it’s quite simply spell-binding theatre.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says,"I left the theatre last night moved and oddly elated by the experience...irresistibly fine." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "first-class." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Superb...deeply satisfying revival." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "It is curiously exhilarating to see the play done, in Anthony Page's superb production, by an all-American cast perfectly attuned to its rhythms." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "she’s terrific [Kathleen Turner]." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is an unmistakably great production of a magnificent play - both wildly funny and scorchingly sad."
A Review by one of our readers Gary Mack
6 Feb 2006
What can you do when you find yourself just outside London on a dismal Monday evening? Well, head to the West End of course and choose from one of the many top productions currently running, the difficulty is choosing one!
Finding myself drawn to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I decided to see it, having seen the play performed locally professionally a number of years ago I was looking forward to seeing the play again. Only this time with Bill Irwin as George for which he won the prestigious Tony Award for best actor on Broadway! and Kathleen Turner as the spiteful and venomous Matha. Also two other actors from the Broadway staging, David Harbour as Nick and Mireille Enos as Honey.
This full house at The Apollo Theatre were unaware just what they were in for (myself Included) when the performance started, the play opens in the living room of George & Matha who arrive home late in the evening (in fact the early hours of the next morning)! The fun and games begin and the performances are startling gripping! Matha & George show us just how much loathing, hate, fun and love between them there is. George however is not impressed when Matha announces she's expecting guests!
The wonderful Kathleen turner who was last seen on the London stage in 'The Graduate' in 2000, plays Matha who is a very gritty and complex character, however no match for the talents of Ms Turner, she grabs this character by the neck and pulls her to command the stage in a tussle with her fellow actors. Bill Irwin puts in a fine solid performance as George and I understand why he was presented with the Tony Award, very intense comic like performance made to look so easy by a great actor!
The two supporting actors in David Harbour & Mireille Enos are equally impressive working exceptionally well together, sparks fly when Nick is seduced by Matha who is disappointed by Nick's inability to perform due to alcohol, the ever loving Honey is slowly torn apart, she finds the ever increasing filling of a glass the only reason to stay.
David Harbour is at the cutting edge with his portrayal as Nick trying his best to protect his wife Honey from the snares and sharpness of Matha and George, George himself insists he wants all to play the last game "Get the guests" Mireille Enos puts in a wonderful performance as Honey making this a must see play.
The running time of 3 hours with two intervals is quite long for a play and the intervals are more than welcome, but the time simply fly's by with such startling performances from such a gripping play. The play is at The Apollo Theatre for a limited run so run and get your tickets its money well spent!