Directed by Iain Sinclair
78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli
Season: 11 May – 18 June
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is awash with manipulation and power play, crafted by Edward Albee to near perfection. Sinclair tackles the play with guts and gusto, creating a production that sizzles. Married couple George and Martha come home from a university party in the early hours of the morning (George is a history professor and Martha’s father is head of the university). Bickering and quarrelling, Martha reveals that she has invited guests to join them. Recently married, Nick and Honey join them (Nick being a new addition to the university as a biology professor). The night proceeds explosively, as each individual becomes increasingly galvanised against the other, crumbling marriages and casting strong aspersions. You’re in for a wild ride.
The play is laden with rich subtext, which Sinclair deliciously draws out in his direction. Set in a crowded living room, Michael Hankin’s production design sets the tone for the evening, becoming a habitat for formalities, for play, and for breakdown. It’s used as both a deeply intimate space, and as a platform for public humiliation.
Claire Lovering is an exquisitely mousey Honey with great comic timing. A portion of Honey's dialogue has been cut from the play in this production, which I think is a shame as it illuminates some of her more baffling behaviour and allows us a greater depth of insight to her and to her relationship with Nick. Lovering has clearly still engaged fully with the given and imaginary details of her life, presenting a detailed characterization. You sympathise with Honey, in spite of her basic intelligence, due to Nick's callous attitude towards her. Brandon McClelland plays Nick with cutting contempt, which allows for a clever, subtle humour. McClelland’s performance captures Nick’s complexity, allowing us to appreciate his attempt to make something out of a hopeless situation. And yet somehow we also resent him for it. Perhaps there is no way for Nick to ‘win’ in this situation, and McClelland’s performance doesn’t reach for likeability, but for nuance, which is far braver.
Darren Gilshenan is wonderful as George, both in his grumbling apathy and in his terrifying furore. Gilshenan and Genevieve Lemon bounce off each other wonderfully to hit the comedy of the piece. No doubt Albee’s writing is dynamic, however I felt that not all of the high points were quite hit, perhaps requiring a little more energy to really make the audience shudder, as called for. Lemon’s Martha is fierce in her attack, and ruthless in her tearing down of the people around her. When she finally crumbles, and her defences are let down, I didn’t feel a strong connection to her experience. It’s a mammoth role and requires an obscene amount of energy, yet I think an evocation of empathy at that point is critical to understanding Martha as a layered human being. At the crux of it all, we have two couples who possess an enduring love for one another (why else would they still be here?) and yet fettered to this love is deep-set resentment and frustration. I would have loved to witness a more palpable love between George and Martha, because I think it is in the text and yet I didn’t feel a strong experience of it in this production.
I think in an age of skyrocketing divorce rates it is evident that marriage isn’t all a rosy walk in the park. It speaks to a strength of commitment that these couples have stuck together thus far through prevailing trial. And yet, we see four people who are irrevocably flawed and who can’t help but wreak havoc in attempt to obliterate the person closest to them. Notably, the characters we see on stage are not unique in acting out this kind of behaviour - how do you feel knowing that there could be some unsavoury parts of you on that stage? Sinclair’s production boldly engages with some of the bitterest aspects of intimate personal relationships, and it’s a thrill to go places where many are hesitant to venture.