Theatre Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

**** This tight production was nothing less than impressive.

ADC Theatre, May 12th-16th
Dir. Robyn Hoedemaker

I really didn’t expect to enjoy this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. There’s nothing quite as excruciating as seeing your favourite play done badly and so I went more out of masochistic curiosity than genuine excitement.

Notoriously difficult to do well, the play shifts from joyously witty to deeply depressing with little warning often leaving actors drowning on stage. Staring at the functional but bland set for the five minutes before the show started did nothing to allay my fears. The fundamentals were there but details were sloppy, a pristine packet of smoking-warning emblazoned-Marlboro-Lights betraying that we were not in the cancer ignorant early sixties. When circus music rang out and the title of the first act, ‘Fun and Games’, descended on a flimsy placard I abandoned all hope. The director smugly refers to this flourish as ‘Brechtian’ in the programme. In reality it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Within two minutes of Edward Rowett and Elizabeth Donnelly entering as George and Martha, however, I realised I’d been as wrong as amputee porn. Donnelly particularly was nothing less than impressive, equally at ease with the raw physicality and underlying vulnerability of her character. As she slugs back the liquor and declares that she’s a ‘gattling gun’ you don’t doubt her for a second. Rowett’s George, although less emotionally demanding, hit the right notes with a real knack for the difficult delivery of Albee’s labyrinthine witticisms. Beneath all this energy the pair often tempered their torturing of one another with an air of reluctance which, far from reducing their edge, heaped on more sadness in all the right places.

With such towering performances it would have been easy for Hannah Blaikie and Paul Syers to get lost as Nick and Honey. This was far from the case, however, with Blaikie divinely ditzy without ever appearing frivolous. Syers was perhaps less remarkable but was still convincing, and being the only American born actor clearly helped him tackle the most all-American character in the play. On this note, it was particularly reassuring to hear no cringe inducing errors in accent from any of the three Brits, especially given that the lead in last term’s Death of a Salesman appeared to have taken The Count from Sesame Street as his main point of reference.

Aside from the ‘Brechtian’ bullshittery, Robyn Hoedemaker played things straight and can be proud of this tight production. Inevitably cuts had to be made from the sprawling script but, aside from losing much of the context of George’s childhood, these were largely unnoticeable. Most satisfyingly the show brought out hope as well as sadness amongst all that savagery, something that is often lost in lesser productions.