Edward Albee’s searing critique of 1960s American polite society is a classic but that doesn’t exclude it from examination as time, opinion, and attitudes change. In this production the text gets held up to the light, prodded a bit; does this thing still hold up? Does it still ring true?
George (Jimi Bani) and Martha (Susan Prior) are returning home from a university event at Martha’s father’s house, the president of the university, but their night continues with new colleague Nick (Rashidi Edward) and his wife Honey (Juanita Navas-Nguyen) joining them for a nightcap. Little do Nick and Honey know that they are being drafted into George and Martha’s decades-long charade of marriage, fracturing with each new psychological game. George and Martha live a twisted tale on the edge of fantasy and reality and, if you’re not careful, they’ll drag you down with them.
The set design by Ailsa Paterson drew on the dense dialogue and pithy wordplay of the script with large chalkboard walls scrawled with repeating phrases “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and its original “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?”. The words pressed in on the stage, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that only intensified with each act as another wall delineating George and Martha’s home was withdrawn, allowing the outside world to slide in. Additionally, Paterson added symbolism with a mote on which George floated a handmade boat, a nod to the dangerous balance George and Martha maintain and with plenty of applicable metaphor about storms, calm seas, and aimlessness.
The performances were phenomenally crafted from Honey’s foolishness to Nick’s quietly seething anger but, of course, it was George and Martha who commanded control of the character dynamics. Prior played Martha smooth as silk with an air of cracked elegance that was surprisingly charming. Her opposite was played by Bani as a clown buffooning as a man of intelligence but really motivated by deep, festering bitterness. The two volleyed the whip-smart dialogue with bite for a terrible, uncomfortable, entertaining performance. George and Martha were locked in a miserable competition which the audience was left begging them both to lose. The relief (the relief!) when the final facade falls.
Director Margaret Harvey had a deliberate intention of mixing up the race politics in her rendition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Using colour-conscious casting, Harvey widened the scope from the white elites to a more modern examination of race, power, systemic forces, and interpersonal relationships. Interestingly, in bringing race to the fore in this production, making power dynamics more explicit and recognisable, Harvey seems to have made the external structures of George and Martha’s home more implicit, turning their disappointments and failures into meta-textual questions: what’s really going on at the university? How is race not being addressed in the script? Though, in two specific moments of Martha calling Nick her houseboy and George making a passing remark on Chinese women stereotypes, the microaggressions became amplified as ugly tripping hazards in an otherwise polished script. Rather than challenging the text itself, Harvey’s casting challenged the audience’s engagement with the script and the way it has been traditionally read by encouraging reading in between the lines, seeing through the characters into their wider context. The impact of that will perhaps be most keenly felt in individual reckonings.
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is running at Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre from January 13th – 23rd
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