Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Theatre Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe

We say the MTC version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe by Edward Albee, on Friday 31st August. Seeing a play that evening was very timely as it took our minds away from our house auction to be held on the following day.

The play starred Garry McDonald as George, Wendy Hughes as Martha, Stephen Phillips as Nick and Alison Bell as Honey. The play is set in George and Martha's living room which is lined by book shelves, which are empty. George is an academic with empty book shelves, some sort of comment there.

The play opens with George and Martha entering the room at 2:00 am after a faculty party at the college where George works as a history teacher. Martha's father is founder and president of the college. They have both been drinking and keep drinking though out the show, but they are not badly effected by alcohol. Martha is discontented and describes their house as a dump. George is ready for bed, but Martha tells him that they will soon have visitors - a new teacher and his wife. She says the teacher is in the maths department but we later discover that he is a biologist. His name is Nick, although he is not called by name in the play, and his wife is Honey. When they arrive it is clear that Honey is badly effected by her drinking at the party.

As Shirley Galloway noted in a review of the play: " ...the audience watches George and Martha tear savagely at each other with the knives of hurled words, sharpened on pain and aimed to draw blood...". George and Martha's relentless verbal attacks on each other gradually reveal their story and the reasons for their unhappiness.

Possibly the greatest cause of their distress does not appear in the play - Martha's father. Martha's mother died when she was young and Martha is very attached to her father - something of a "Daddy's Girl". She wants to make her father proud of her. The play is set in the 1950s so Martha is not able to gain her father's approval by her own achievements, she must do this via her husband's successes. Unfortunately George is a failure in his career. During the war he was briefly Head of the History Department while all of the other faculty members were away fighting. Sadly for George none of his colleagues were killed and when they returned he lost his position as Department Head. Martha wants the unconditional love of her father and a loving relationship with George, but she can't have both.

George is also struggling to deal with issues from his childhood, though these are presented with more ambiguity. In Act 2 he tells Nick a story of a teenage boy who accidentally kills his mother and later his father. Later in the play we hear that this was the main theme of a novel that George had written. According to Martha, George claimed that the boy was himself. George clearly has feelings of guilt towards his parents, and the novel was probably an attempt at penance to expiate his guilt. This was thwarted by Martha's father who argued that it was not the type of book to be published by a member of his college and so he stopped publication.

Both couples are damaged by their childlessness. To compensate George and Martha invent a child, but they have an agreement not to mention him in front of other people. Martha breaks that rule and tells Nick that their son will be home tomorrow for his 21st birthday. Both Martha and George have invested heavily in this imaginary child, but George decides to announce in front of Nick and Honey that the child has been killed. The manner of the death harks back to the plot of the novel. He probably does this to wound Martha and in that aim succeeds magnificently. But there is also possibly a positive motivation. It might well be that "killing" the child will allow George and Martha to create something real and wholesome in their relationship. This possibility is suggested in the final scene between George and Martha after Nick and Honey leave.

Nick and Honey's relationship is less clearly fleshed out. They obviously have serious difficulties. They have known each other since childhood, but Nick feels that he was trapped into marriage by a phantom pregnancy of Honey's. This version of the play leaves out a scene that indicates that their childlessness is caused by Honey's fear of having a child. Possibly, like all of the other characters in the play she is still emotionally a child. Her abuse of alcohol might relate to this. At the end of the play George and Martha might have gained some self-knowledge and may be able to move on to a more positive relationship. It is clear that this is not possible yet for Honey and Nick.

The performances were all superb. Alison Bell as Honey was particularly interesting, see photograph at right. The character laughs one minute, cries another, and then runs to the bathroom to puke. She is not a loud drunk, much of the time she is quite "out of it". As Bell says of Honey, in an interview is Scenes, Spring 2007, the "trick is trying to work out how aware she is of what's going on and how much passes her by". She adds, "Honey isn't lucid ... I have to put myself in that foggy place and take that extra time to respond and react".

It was a three and a half hour tour de force, and very well worth seeing.

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