Martha – Imelda Staunton
George – Conleth Hill
Honey – Imogen Poots
Nick – Luke Treadaway
Edward Albee’s legendary 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is currently playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Directed by James MacDonald and starring celebrated actress Imelda Staunton, fresh from her recent triumph in Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, and Game of Thrones actor Conleth Hill, this production is an unqualified success.
The dark yet often comedic play details the aftermath of a party thrown by Martha’s father, the president of the college where George is a professor. Nick and his wife Honey are also in attendance, as Nick is the newest professor at the college. Over the course of three hours the dysfunctional marriage between Martha and George gradually unravels, revealing raw, vulnerable and ultimately self-destructive characters.
Imelda Staunton’s performance is undoubtedly one of her best yet. She may only be five feet tall, but what she lacks in height she makes up for in stage presence. The commanding tone of her voice is not dissimilar to her performance in Gypsy, with a flawless American accent you could be forgiven for thinking was real. Throughout the three acts we see the full range of her acting talents, from her quick wit to her heart-breaking emotional breakdown in the final scene.
Conleth Hill gives a superb performance as George, Martha’s dissatisfied, cynical, taunting husband. At times his interpretation of certain lines are hauntingly similar to Richard Burton’s in the 1966 Oscar-winning film, and the same can certainly be said of Staunton and Elizabeth Taylor. Hill perfectly channels the dark humour of Albee’s play, engrossing the audience and giving them no choice but to hang off his every word.
Staunton and Hill bounce off each other, creating an intensely emotional relationship between Martha and George. Arguably the best scenes in the play are the very few when just the two of them are on stage, tormenting each other with vicious attacks they both know they are going to regret.
Luke Treadaway plays the somewhat arrogant new professor Nick, and his naïve ‘slim-hipped’ wife Honey is portrayed by Imogen Poots. Whilst Treadaway already has an extensive list of theatre credits to his name, Poots makes not only her West End, but her theatre debut in a role perfectly suited to her. Despite the differences in their ages, the two couples clearly both have their demons regarding children, the exact nature of which is not entirely clear until the climactic final scene.
Imelda Staunton made headlines late last year when she called for a ban on eating in theatres, and surely it is no coincidence that the first West End theatre to implement this rule is the very theatre she is performing at. In a play as intense as Virginia Woolf?, it is important that the audience’s full attention be on the actors giving the performances of their lifetimes, and not on making noise by rustling packets and annoying the people around them. Happily, at least at the performance I saw, the entire audience abided by this rule. With any luck, more theatres in London and around the country will follow in their footsteps, creating a much more enjoyable experience and enabling the audience to focus their attention where it is needed.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 27th May, and will be broadcast live to cinemas across the country on Thursday 18th May.