One of the most lauded plays of the 20th century, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a high stakes cat and mouse game. Husband and wife adopt a take no prisoners’ attitude to the unfolding conflict. Before this is over, both will be metaphorically beaten up, as will their unwitting younger guests who become part of the fiendish derring-do.
George and Martha – played by real life husband and wife Kat Stewart and David Whiteley – have been married for 23 years. Martha is the 50-something daughter of the esteemed president of a small New England university and anything but a shrinking violet. George is an associate professor in the history department at the same university and six years younger than her. His lack of drive has been a grave disappointment to her throughout their marriage and something that has held back his career.
It is 2am when they return home from a faculty party, only for Martha to break the news that they are about to receive visitors that she met during the evening. He is none too pleased, but opens the door to 28-year-old Nick (Harvey Zielinski), a newcomer to the biology department and his wife Honey (Emily Goddard), 26. Nick and Honey have known each other since they were children.
Nick is highly ambitious, while his wife is often sickly. With the booze flowing freely, the frosty and bitter relations between Martha and George are on display for all to see. Nick doesn’t want to buy in and it is soon evident that Honey doesn’t hold her liquor well. Before you know it, the couple is party to a series of cruel and humiliating games, which has them both wincing.
The barbs between Martha and George are flying thick and fast. Notwithstanding what he said, Nick too is goaded into participating in the unholy scrap. With poison in the air, Martha is well on her way to seducing Nick, whose physical attributes she has commented on, while he has revealed much about his wife. And talking of revelations, Martha has inadvertently let the cat out of the bag concerning George and her son, who turns 21 the following day. But just what is fact and what is fiction in this fight for survival amidst the verbal fisticuffs?
A play that unfolds in three acts, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in October 1962 and won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play. It was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year, but the award’s advisory board objected to its profanity and sexual themes, overruling the jury.
It is a particularly cleverly written work, dramatic and comedic, with fine turns of phrase. Many of the one liners are daggers to the heart of the players and immediately hit the mark with audiences. One’s take on the characters if forever shifting, that aspect of the guessing game being among the play’s greatest virtues. All these years on, it has lost none of its bite.
The Red Stitch production is superbly executed, led from the front by heavyweight performances from Kat Stewart and David Whiteley. As Martha, Stewart is vituperative, Whiteley acerbic as George. Both give as good as they get. Harvey Zielinski comes into his own as Nick drops his guard, while Emily Goddard has Honey’s glazed look down pat.
The period furnishings transport us to Martha and George’s living room. Set and costume design are by Harriet Oxley. Lighting by Jason Ng Junjie and sound design and composition from Grace Ferguson and Ethan Hunter are most effective. Sarah Goodes directs an incendiary offering – one of Red Stitch’s very best – with aplomb. It is playing until 17th December, 2023.