Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, Old Vic, Bristol

Martial hearts
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The Independent Culture

IT IS not generally known as a feel-good play. Yet it would be a shame if the desolate reputation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should discourage audiences from making their way to the Old Vic. There is something wonderfully satisfying in seeing a grown-up modern classic performed with such thought and attention to detail, and with a recognition that what lies beneath the surface of the script is far more interesting than a simple display of marital martial arts.

This is not a production that has the director's fingerprints all over it. With his scrupulous care for the minutiae, Gareth Machin is developing a niche for himself as a crafter of precision work in which the director's hand is almost invisible, yet absolutely crucial. This staging has not a hair out of place. Combined with a lyrical script, what transpires on stage is almost too perfect. As a result, the audience are never quite drawn out of their role as observers and into the heart of this domestic Armageddon. By thus avoiding the squirm factor that a more "real" portrayal would induce, they can revel in the strength of the performances and the beauty of Albee's writing. Machin's production transfixes rather than discomfits and is more enjoyable for it.

The delicate staging is aided by some intelligent interpretation. George is often portrayed as a nebbish, an ineffectual cipher who lives up to Martha's description of him as "a zero". But not in Gerard Murphy's hands. His George is a man who has chosen not to try, rather than one who has tried and failed. There is a strength in his embittered acceptance of a life more ordinary, and he tolerates his shrewish wife rather than being downtrodden by her. As a result, Clare Higgins's Martha – an attention-seeking hysteric with an accent that is a little too Queens for a New England college president's daughter – flutters like an irascible moth round the glow of George's quiet anger.

Rather than suggesting a couple who won't acknowledge that their marriage is a sham, their performances bring out the fact that much of what passes between George and Martha is merely the "fun and games" that many married couples play. Higgins and Murphy succeed in communicating not only the vitriol on the surface of the marriage, but also the strange, twisted love between them. This production suggests that, buried in Albee's drama, there is a love story trying to get out. Maybe it is a feel-good play after all.

To Sat (0117-987 7877)