Fear and loathing in Liverpool

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a portrait of a marriage made in hell
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The Independent Culture

It's hardly surprising that Ian Bartholomew sounds exhausted: he is "right slap-bang in the middle of rehearsals" as one half of the infamous bickering couple in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Bartholomew is George, the bitter college-professor husband of the heavy-drinking Martha, roles immortalised by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols's 1966 screen version of the play.

It's hardly surprising that Ian Bartholomew sounds exhausted: he is "right slap-bang in the middle of rehearsals" as one half of the infamous bickering couple in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Bartholomew is George, the bitter college-professor husband of the heavy-drinking Martha, roles immortalised by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols's 1966 screen version of the play.

George and Martha are masters at sniping at and undermining each other, and things go from bad to worse when they invite a young couple, the new professor on campus and his wife, around for drinks. "We come out of rehearsals for a tea break and the director, Gemma [Bodinetz], is getting very fussed about having to send us back into the room because it is like a bear pit," says the actor.

Bartholomewis currently ploughing through lines. "It is such a long play. We think we're going to be able to perform it in just over three hours," he says. "The challenge is that when George is on stage he doesn't stop talking. It's a feat of memory - getting the lines in the right order, and making sure that you keep the role going.

"George is an academic and a bit of a stickler. He keeps going back to things. He will not let go of certain little nuggets that he has in his head. It's a question of getting the internal logic of the character right."

Does the film version often overshadow an actor playing a role on stage? "In the case of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I haven't watched the film for a long time," says Bartholomew. "You end up looking for clues, rather than relying on your own instinct for the character. It isn't arrogance, but I don't want to be influenced. I am not Richard Burton. I could not play the part like him."

Bartholemew's previous stage roles include Danforth in The Crucible, at the Crucible, Sheffield; Shylock in The Merchant of Venice for the RSC; and James Cameron in The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida. He was also nominated for an Olivier Award for best actor in the 1991 musical Into the Woods, and best supporting actor in a musical for 1993's Radio Times. His films include Mike Hodges' A Prayer for the Dying.

Martha is played by Denise Black, who filled the title roles in Yerma and Mrs Warren's Profession at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Bodinetz directs, after success at the Liverpool Everyman with The Kindness of Strangers.

What will George wear? "I have original, vintage 1960s clothes from America, including a cardigan and a bow tie," says Bartholomew. "We are going for the archetypal history-professor look. But when you first see George, he seems a beaten-down and broken man. The pressures of being married to this woman and her drink problem mean that over the years he has given up. But actually his intellectual capacity and force is huge. That is his journey."

'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', Liverpool Playhouse (0151-709 4776) 1 to 23 April

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