Marriage is a booze-fuelled Strindbergian blood sport in Edward Albee's 1962 classic and Tim Piggott-Smith and Clare Higgins land viciously funny linguistic blows on each other with a shocking, deadly aplomb in Adrian Noble's fine revival of the play in Bath.
It's vitriol on the rocks when George, a failed New England history professor and Martha, his older, scathingly frustrated wife return home at 2 am, followed by another pair from the campus party. Trapped by professional considerations (Martha, as the daughter of the college President, has influence), this young couple become haplessly embroiled in their hosts' exhibition bout of hard-drinking marital savagery conducted through ritualistic mutual humiliation and malicious games (such as “Get the Guests”).
Higgins (who might have been born to play the part) is thrilling as Martha. It's a raucous, no-holds-barred performance whose blowsy, man-eating bravura has a camp, self-knowing edge (Martha is conscious that she's school-of-Bette-Davis). She's given to great gusts of cackling glee, especially when appreciating – as a co-connoisseur of twisted gamesmanship – some of her spouse's wilier manouevres.
It's an indictment of the period that a woman of this intelligence and wit felt obliged to live through her husband (disappointment for, as well as with, George for being a flop in the faculty and in bed fuels her vituperation). A diva of the devastating put-down (“I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you”), Martha operates primarily from the gut. By contrast, Piggott's Smith's downtrodden, fascinatingly tricky George is the cannier long-term strategist, deflecting his emotions into pastiche and comic impersonation (the head-scratching dumbness of Stan Laurel, say) and launching his lethal shafts from behind a treacherous front of whimsical geniality.
What the actors penetratingly show is a marriage of extreme symbiotic dependency that has had to turn itself into a vindictive vaudeville double act, sustained by fantasy, as a distraction from the pain of failure and childlessness. It's the agonised stripping away of illusion that makes an overwhelming impact in performance, not the play's rather forced-sounding efforts to be of wider diagnostic significance – with George, the ineffectual, backward-looking history professor, representing the liberal humanist tradition that's challenged by Nick, the thrusting new recruit to the biology department, who symbolises the possibly baleful progress into a scientifically controlled future.
Hair rinsed a discomfiting Aryan yellow, Nathan Wiley's handsome Nick certainly looks like a poster boy for the eugenics that he researches. But his performance skilfully captures the on-the-make young academic caught between testy indignation at the hosts' behaviour and tactical ingratiation in the shape of a show of drunken lust for the President's daughter. Iris Roberts is very striking as his wife Honey, declining from squiffy/squeaky social caution and best behaviour into a harrowed, sozzled wreck once her own secret has been cruelly exposed.
The play is nasty, brutish and long – here played over three hours and fifteen minutes with two intervals – but the central couple's final exhausted, chastened and tentatively hopeful reckoning at dawn leaves you feeling a surge of cathartic uplift. There was a teething problem at the press performance but it did not blunt the production's fangs and I'm sure will be quickly remedied during the run.