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article imageReview: Revival of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' heats up London Special

By Tim Sandle     Mar 12, 2017 in Entertainment
London - A new production of Edward Albee's classic drama 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' has begun a run on the London stage. The production stars Imelda Staunton in what is sure to become one of her greatest roles.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1962 play by Edward Albee. As well having several major theatrical runs the play is also a notable movie, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who transferred the Broadway production to the big screen). With this revival, running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, established screen and stage star Imelda Staunton delivers a superb performance.
Theatrical poster for  Who s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?   playing in London in 2017.
Theatrical poster for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', playing in London in 2017.
The play takes an intense look at the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Set over one late evening, following a university faculty party, the couple receive an unwitting younger couple called Nick and Honey. The younger couple are then drawn into George and Martha's bitter and frustrated relationship, and the underlying tensions of relationships are brought to the fore.
Theater program and tickets for the London revival of  Who s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Theater program and tickets for the London revival of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
The title of the play is a pun on the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", as used in Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs (1933). The Wolf is substituted for the modernist novelist Virginia Woolf, and it remains a variation of fear but instead of being afraid of the wolf, it's essentially about being afraid of living life without false illusions. Playwright Albee seems to be suggesting that many modern marriages are sustained by destructive role-play.
The London revival features a great performance from Imelda Staunton (star of the movie Vera Drake), although she is equally well-matched by Conleth Hill (Varys in Game of Thrones) in the verbal dexterity stakes as they pummel each other senseless over the course of three hours. The atmosphere builds up in the second act when all four characters are drawn into the verbal duelling, as the character of George declares it is time to “Get the guests”, signalling a new bout of verbal blood sports.
As the play progresses it not only shows the joins and disjoins in relationships, it reveals the hovering between reality and illusion (in the case of Martha and George a very big illusion, one that accounts for them staying together when they appear to have little respect left for each other). This is borne out in the grotesque games the central couple indulge in so they can camouflage their unhappiness.
The play not only looks at the microcosm of the relationship between the two couples (and their different, although seemingly dishonest, reasons for being together), it also critiques social values and societal expectations, especially the norm of 1960s society and the ideal of the nuclear family, the breadwinning husband and the expectation of perfect children.
The magnificent ceiling inside the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is a Victorian ear theater  once called...
The magnificent ceiling inside the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is a Victorian ear theater, once called the 'Comedy Theatre'.
The acting and direction are well-development on so many levels: the timings of the silences, the gestures of the actors and presentation of the set (including the transition from night to dawn) are incredibly atmospheric. These small touches enhance the witty script and the emotionally-charged delivery by the four cast members.
Audience taking their seats in the Harold Pinter Theatre.  A  West End theatre  and opened on Panton...
Audience taking their seats in the Harold Pinter Theatre. A West End theatre, and opened on Panton Street in the City of Westminster, on 15 October 1881, as the Royal Comedy Theatre. It was designed by Thomas Verity and built in just six months in painted (stucco) stone and brick.
Staunton brings a desolate sadness to her character's part, which is different to the big blousy performance of Elizabeth Taylor in the movie version. Conleth Hill eases into his character as the paunchy, disillusioned, low-achieving academic. The character of Nick is portrayed by Luke Treadaway (recently seen in the television series Fortitude and starring in the movie A Street Cat Named Bob). Treadaway conveys a mix of arrogance and naiveté to the role of the young academic. The final actor is Imogen Poots, in her West End debuted. Poots equips herself well as Honey, gradually disintegrating as she sees the magic disappearing from her own marriage.
Unusually the play has three acts (albeit the time between the second and third only a couple of minutes). This serves as much as a cliff-hanger as it does for the audience to pause and rest a little from the intensity of the drama.
Poster for  Who s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  outside the Harold Pinter Theatre in London.
Poster for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' outside the Harold Pinter Theatre in London.
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