Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

27 June - 6 July 2019 /
Theatre Hawke’s Bay /
By Jess Soutar Barron 

George and Martha come home from a faculty party bringing their younger selves with them: sweet but sickly Honey and slick Nick. They play games: Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess into the early hours. They drink throughout, each voice making its own smooth move into booze-soaked slurring. Games are battles, timeless: Age versus Youth, Ambition versus Apathy, Good versus Sad, disempowered masculinity versus passive aggressive neurosis, History versus Biology.

Each part is given its own space, even the almost silent and often absent Honey. Each vignette peels away from the collective to breath its own nauseous, stale air, then flows back to the centre both eagerly but nervously, like a co-dependent spouse.

The choice to do away with a particular Americana drawl is an excellent one as it brings finely tuned nuance to each patter and gives all players an opportunity to explore subtlety of delivery. This is a wordy piece of theatre so characterisation is paramount. Audience must get to know and love these characters early on, so it can stick with them, thick and thin, through long waffling monologues to quick quips with tails that sting.

Games are foreplay: “We’re merely exercising,” they tell the audience. Each character devises their own drama while rubbing up against the other’s. Each plots their next move with strategic verve. Cerebral gymnastics make for a complex script that gives audience plenty to consider even though it’s set lineally in real time, in one room.

The set is lush with rich mise-en-scene. The lighting warm, creating a false sense of succour. It’s cluttered domesticity – cosy and comfortable – but after two hours becomes too cosy, too comfy, disordered. Fine reading turns clutter chaotic. The furniture is overstuffed, the Peace Lily, ironically, hidden high on the bookshelf, the chess game midway through, symbolically so.

Timing and control of voice and movement deliver tension to the piece that brings audience right into the living room, right inside the complex dynamics between the four players.

The four pillars of delivery: pace, pause, pitch and projection, are mastered by each actor, although Neil McCorkell brings that skill up to PhD level. His sotto voce threats are terrifying. Lines run over each other giving the feeling of the claustrophobia of the evening, the self-consumed position of each player. Body language is disciplined and precise. In holding back, the cast creates a tension that’s far more effective than shouting and flailing could ever be.

Allegiances and attacks move fast with Martha played at first as plotting harradine. By the end all sympathy is with her. She manipulates the audience like she manhandles her men, she’s adored then reviled, then pitied. Clair Rochester in the role gives it her all. She slays it; every movement, every wobble, every grope, pash and venomous spit.

James McCaffrey’s moment comes in the break-away vignette of the fraternal connection between he and George. This double-hander gives McCaffrey a moment of intimate honesty that has the audience siding with his motivations. Here, he becomes three-dimensional and as much an agent of the action as the main protagonists. He’s been puppetted up until this point, but here he takes an active role.

Monique Cowern, wide-eyed and pathetic, is wonderful as Honey. Her delighted squeals of “Violence! Violence!” bringing a coquettish grotesque to the action. Each opportunity to add to the drama is taken with impeccable timing and control.

Plays about people talking about themselves can be risky business, but this is elevated above the ‘kitchen sink’. This production is pure memory, desire, secrets, lies; a cocktail of human fragility. Audience becomes witness and confidante, complicit in the action, and responsible for bringing out the very worst in people.

Director Andrea Taaffe has managed, though, to bring out the very best in her cast. It’s a work that will stick to ribs well into the next day, hard to shift like a hangover, but worth every minute given to its consumption.

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2 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

  1. I felt that this was under-directed and often became a drudgery of ‘Talking Heads’.

    There was seriously good talent on stage but the actors needed more solid structure.

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