Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is in the hands of director David Mercatali at the Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol and is a co-production by that theatre as a production company and a Wiltshire Creative Production based at Salisbury Playhouse.
Performed in the Tobacco Factory’s theatre in Bristol, in the round where no member of the audience is more than ten metres away from the action, is something of a visceral experience especially when watching this arguably most famous of Albee’s plays.
In offering a critique of both this production and the play itself it is a little unnerving when Albee himself said that “if Atilla the Hun were alive today he’d be a drama critic”.
Reputedly based in reality on a couple of good friends, Albee’s characters of George and Martha are a heavy drinking couple. He a professor of history and she the daughter of the college principal where George teaches. After a faculty party they invite Nick a young biology professor and his wife Honey back for more post-prandial drinking.,
During the three hour passage of the play all four get more and more drunk and as they do so the veneer of social acceptability is stripped away leaving raw emotions and hidden sensitivities not only laid bare but poked and prodded until they bleed and suppurate.
Whilst the Daily Mirror might have described the play originally as “a sick play for sick people” this comment does not do justice to the author’s intent (in the opinion of this critic).
For George and Martha discovered early in their marriage that they were infertile and one of the ways of coping with this is to invent and embellish the life of a boy they never, and could never, have and it is this that largely sums up the volatile relationship between them fuelled by bouts of long heavy drinking.
Similarly Nick and Honey through what Nick describes as a ‘hysterical (phantom) pregnancy’ are coping better with their lives or are until George and Martha start to play their drunken sadistic games with them.
In this production with Pooky Quesnel as Martha and Mark Meadows as George, the pair hit the ground running straight from the off, with a blistering pace and energetic vocal and physical attack. Impressive mastery of the script is evidenced as cuing and overlapping speech prove a bewildering introduction for the audience to the play.
The entrance of Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry as Nick and Honey naturally slow the pace as, until they get drunk that is, theirs is a more reserved relationship.
Four performances from players at the top of their game and with David Mercatali showing his passion for the play, providing a theatre experience to remember.
Not an easy one for the audience who at the close of the play might appear to be as wrung out as the on-stage players seemed to be.
Set firmly in the sixties with Ercol type seating, furnishings of the period including a Dansette record player with vinyl LPs the evocative design by Anisha Field conjures up the period.
To sum up, performances to savour, creatives fully committed to the director David Mercatali’s vision, at times clarity of the spoken word was sacrificed to the American southern drawl accents and the increasing inebriation. Oh and ditch the fake fags!
As his biography states Albee’s “relationships with tickets buyers who only intermittently made his plays into hits and critics who were disdainful, as often they were, ran hot and cold”.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at the Tobacco Factory Theatres until 21st March 2020.
Main Image: Mark-Dawson-Photography