Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

May 12 2016 | By More

★★★★☆    Resonant

Assembly Roxy: Wed 11 – Sat 14 May 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

By turns bitingly sharp and believably messy, the Grads’ production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has real emotional power.

Edward Albee’s celebrated 1962 play features George and Martha, a bitterly quarrelling couple, and Nick and Honey, the younger pair they have invited back to their house after a ‘faculty mixer’ at a New England college.

Mel Sherwood, Caroline Hood and Kyle Matson. Photo: The Grads

Mel Sherwood, Caroline Hood and Kyle Matson. Photo: The Grads

George is a disappointed history teacher, Nick is a recent arrival in the biology department and Martha is the daughter of the college’s president. Soon cracks appear in everyone’s relationships as all four are cast adrift on a sea of liquor, with truth and illusion seemingly interchangeable.

While much of the dialogue is rooted in recognisable emotions, there are equally obvious symbolic resonances – not for nothing are the central pair named after Mr and Mrs Washington. Equally, there are moments of real – if supremely dark – humour, which are often played up to make this something akin to a screwball comedy’s oddball cousin.

This does not really happen here, although much of it is genuinely funny. This production lays off the snappiness, instead focusing on the chaos of human relations. There are times where it seems to glory in slowing the pace down, even as we approach the three and a half hour running time that makes that 7 pm start seem a very good idea.

unusually puckish

While this lets the accomplished cast do justice to their roles, there is the occasional danger of momentum being lost. The thrust stage in front of the venue’s raised acting area, furthermore, does not work as well as it might. The actors are certainly up close, but sightlines are not ideal for a large proportion of the audience – a situation that is exacerbated by a cage-like structure depicting the house that hinders as much as it helps.

Kyle Matson and Richard Godden. Photo: The Grads

Kyle Matson and Richard Godden. Photo: The Grads

This is a shame, as the acting is of a very high level indeed, and David Grimes’s direction serves the cast so well he can be forgiven the odd mis-step in the staging.

Richard Godden’s George is an unusually puckish characterisation, with the occasional mannerism or expression (not to mention nailed-on timing) reminiscent of Groucho Marx. This is fittingly playful in a part that is often much more tortured or even unhinged. Instead – much like Groucho – George’s social anarchism here seems borne out of a deep scepticism of any kind of authority, even one’s own. In what is an extremely thought-provoking performance, Godden presents a man aware of his own self-delusions and thoroughly impatient with anyone who is not similarly aware.

That certainly covers Nick (Kyle Matson), the bluff, ambitious, apparently self-contained younger man. The significance of the characters is always up for debate, but it could certainly be claimed that George and Martha represent the eclipse of an older notion of America – with a newer, shinier, harsher one taking its place.

Bullingdonesque self-entitlement

Matson’s unfeasibly shiny hair and complexion cannot help evoking David Cameron at first glance. While a Trump flyaway hairdo would perhaps have been more obvious, the point is nevertheless well made, as Nick is apparently full of Bullingdonesque self-entitlement. What makes Matson’s performance so impressive is that he not only conveys that self-love, but shows it to be horribly brittle and closer to self-loathing.

Richard Godden and Mel Sherwood. Photo: The Grads

Richard Godden and Mel Sherwood. Photo: The Grads

Caroline Hood’s Honey is similarly complex. While her drunken, bird-like chirping and flapping are extremely funny, she is equally good at suggesting the emptiness of the character – something that is arguably much more difficult to do in Albee’s revised version of the script, where some of her story is made considerably less explicit.

There is a real ensemble feel to the piece, and the standard of acting is so good – bar the odd, understandable accent slippage – that it is invidious to single out one performer. Nevertheless, Mel Sherwood’s Martha is probably the highlight. Her performance is perhaps not the most consistent, but that in itself fits the character. She displays an enviable range, from sly smiles at others’ misfortune to full-blown emotional meltdown, showing a raw truthfulness that is almost painful to watch at times.

That is not the only thing about the production that will make you feel you have been put through the wringer. Watching emotional collapse over such a long period (and on such uncomfortable chairs) is perhaps not for everyone, but is certainly well worth the effort in this case.

Running time 3 hours 30 minutes (including two intervals)
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH 9SU.
Wednesday 11 – Saturday 14 May 2016
Daily: 7.00pm

Then at Birchvale Theatre, Dalbeattie Saturday 21st May 2016
Barony Theatre, Bo’ness Saturday 28th May 2016
Tickets: www.egtg.co.uk/tickets


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