It takes a great cast to make Edward Albee's booze-sodden, marital showdown from 1962 still truly wind you. With the iconic Burton-Taylor version on celluloid and fairly regular West End airings - including the Almeida's still memorable transfer with Diana Rigg and David Suchet - the scenario is almost too familiar to be genuinely shocking. And yet Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is an extraordinary classic that still packs a punch. It is formidably strongly structured and crazily twisted, brilliantly scripted, darkly funny and gripping as the psychosexual games which Martha and George play with their naïve guests, Honey and Nick, become increasingly merciless.
This Tony-winning Broadway production starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as Martha and George - directed by Anthony Page and co-presented by Nica Burns' new high-calibre West End company, Nimax - is also cunningly deceptive. It looks dowdy and dated at first glance. Everything is a washed-out brown in the mock-Tudor home of this stagnating campus couple, with just a few psychedelic whorls on the cushions. It appears civilised in an old-fashioned way with its panelling, brass lamps, and bookshelves, though with a faded ghostliness, hinting at the duo's sad, obsessive fantasies.
Turner and Irwin's repartee, as they roll in after a faculty party, is played very much for laughs, like a US sitcom, punctuated by her flinging back her head for a husky chortle. Then, when the sniping starts, it seems as if it's going to be an unequal battle. Turner shoots from the hip and she looks like a big, dangerous, ageing lion with her mane of hair and velour slacks, still prowling and ready to pounce. Irwin, by contrast, almost fades into the background, a worm-thin, grey, going-nowhere historian with a curved spine and elbows raised like a nerdy clown. The thrill here is how he gets the upper hand, not just with a startlingly impish sense of humour but with sneaky cunning, sizing up then attacking people's weak spots with a poisonous, darting agility. He really steals the show, though all four players are riveting.
David Harbour's towering, square-jawed Nick - though perhaps getting irascible fractionally too fast - reveals his shabby morals in flashes, letting the prim veneer drop to expose lust and cold ambition. Mireille Enos as his young and quietly souring wife is extremely funny but also disturbing, with glazed eyes that look almost literally blind drunk.
When she goes wild, and starts reeling around to the gramophone, squeaking with excitement at a leery compliment, she manages to look like a complete fool and, tragically, innocently sweet. Her grief-stricken collapse is, in fact, the most harrowing moment in this long night's journey into tentative day.
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