Edward Albee’s 1962 classic of marital discord, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a well-made play about middle class resentment, disappointment and the pursuit of pleasure. Like Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’ novel from the year before, it was one of a wave of stories that brought a flinty realism to its subject, the emotional life of the post-war family.
The story of the unhappy academic couple disappointed by their tragic pasts and unfulfilled dreams was inspired by British plays like John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956) and went on to inspire others, including David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971). Just as Revolutionary Road evokes a heroic American past with its dreams of subversion and reversal, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s main characters, George and Martha, seem to represent the realities of the lost American dream.
Now, when the uncertainty generated by climate change seems to threatens not only my generation’s dreams, but our very futures, the scale of the play can seem smaller than that represented by domestic drama in the 1960s, when it tore down walls, broke barriers and let in the light.
But if the play still rings true it is perhaps because of the sizzling tension between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the off-screen darlings twice married and twice divorced, whose portrayals in the 1966 film saw them both nominated for Oscars (as were co-stars George Segal and Sandy Dennis), with Taylor winning Best Actress (for the second time after 1960’s BUtterfield 8, sic) and Dennis Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
In a new Australian production, off-stage couple Kat Stewart and David Whiteley, of Offspring and Underbelly fame, show that the electricity between the cast can spark new life into the play.
Directed for Red Stitch by award-winning theatre director, Sarah Goodes, this production has some of the grace notes of a recent UK production at Ustinov Studio in Bath’s Theatre Royal, like the period set and costume design by Harriet Oxley. In balancing the see-sawing tension between George and Martha and their guests Nick and Honey, the direction is wholly original, and pitch perfect.
The play crackles with a chemistry that is both relaxed and whip-smart, as an alternately laconic and loquacious Martha (Stewart) arrives home from a party to inform her husband George (Whiteley) that they are expecting guests. These guests arrive in the middle of a domestic drama no less energetic for being staged in the early hours of the morning and soon find themselves in a domestic drama of their own that stretches almost till dawn.
As the play arcs between comedy and tragedy, it is anchored in the strength of its performances. Where Harvey Zielinski’s young biologist, Nick, brings a modern scepticism as well as a wry humour to his older colleagues’ need to épater la bourgeoisie, Emily Goddard, who plays his wife Honey, proves once again that she can background act with the best of them, providing a steady array of memorable faces that cast commentary on the characters’ dialogue.
But the play belongs to Kat Stewart, who plays Martha in a fury of invention, wit and timing that brings a comic context to the harrowing tragedy of the role. It’s a performance that shines a light into the kinds of futures we can make when we mine the past.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Writer: Edward Albee
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
Director: Sarah Goodes
Set/Costume Design: Harriet Oxley
Lighting Design: Jason Ng Junjie
Composition/Sound Design: Grace Ferguson and Ethan Hunter
Assistant Director: Keegan Bragg
Set/Costume Design Assistant: Natalie Petrellis
Stage Manager: Kelly Wilson
Assistant Stage Manager: Georgina Bright
Cast: Emily Goddard, Kat Stewart, David Whiteley, Harvey Zielinski, Damon Baudin (Understudy)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be performed until 17 December 2023.