1812 Theatre bring Albee’s classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to the stage.
1962 saw the opening of Albee’s play on Broadway and I would have loved to be witness to Uta Hagen’s Martha so effective that she won the 1963 Tony award for her performance. Most will remember the 1966 movie starring the golden couple of their age, Liz and Dick, who spat and clawed their way through the adaptation of Albee’s wonderfully complex script – much as they did in the private life of their own marriage if reports are to be believed. Albee gave his characters, Martha and George, savagely provocative games to play with their guests, Nick and Honey: Bringing up Baby and Hump the Hostess to name just two. The play is described as a dark comedy and it is delicious.
“Who could resist the allure of directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” states Director Libby Procter. “Having taught this play some years ago to a year 12 Literature class and seen how much enjoyment the students derived from the deeply flawed characters with their often rapier sharp wit, directing the play seemed the next step.”
In those early days the play was controversial or unusual for many reasons: It’s length –over 3 hours – the title is a parody of the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Walt Disney's The Three Little Pigs, and alludes to the English novelist Virginia Woolf. The 1966 film was the first to use the word screw and the phrase Hump the Hostess which sent the censors into a frenzy that resulted in deleting screw but keeping the hostess humping alliteration.
“But is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (first performed in the 1960’s to simultaneously shocked and exhilarated audiences), just as relevant today?” posits Procter. “In the ‘60’s America was embroiled in the cold war with Russia, and the Cuban crisis occurred in the same month the play opened. It is no accident that George and Martha, the main protagonists, are named after George and Martha Washington. Albee was preoccupied by the decline of the American Dream and indeed with the decline of the west per se. These concerns resonate with us in the 21st century.”
All of this aside, Albee’s characters enter a brave new world of intoxicating (and intoxicated) verbal abuse and humiliations that know no bounds but they enter it willingly and what an actor’s dream!
Procter chose her cast carefully (Helen Ellis as Martha, Keith Hutton as George, Stephen Shinkfield as Nick and Sarah Milway as Honey) because she knew that Albee’s multi-layered script would be a challenge in the form of capturing the dynamics between the characters (what is making them tick!) as well as recognizing and allowing the comedy to happen as well as developing the required American accent.
“From my perspective Martha is so incredibly complex,” explains award winning actor Helen Ellis. “She transitions from one emotion to the next, turning on a dime and trying to follow her is exhausting, challenging, rewarding and exasperating all in a matter of seconds. The play is very text driven and Libby, our director, knows the play better than most. There are questions galore that raise their heads during the process and sometimes that question is – why are we doing this again? The play is long but fabulous and I think we all have a love/hate relationship with it – it moves us to tears but fills us with pride when we get it right. Hopefully by the end of the process (and long before we open) we will be getting it more right than wrong – which I have a sneaking suspicion we will.”
Award winning actor Stephen Shinkfield shows his fair share of apprehension at the daunting task ahead but understands the power of a talented ensemble and an inspiring director. “The play is a complex, multi-layered exploration of the lives of four people who are thrown together in one very confusing night. As such, as yet, I have never felt 'on top' of the material. In some respects it may be foolhardy to even expect that you might pick up every nuance that Albee intended. But that is part of the joy of presenting our version of this classic. It is our take on Albee's work and our thoughts on where to place importance in the script. It has been a joy to work with such a talented cast and each rehearsal brings out more and more of the 'magic', for want of a better word. To have someone like Libby at the helm has been a blessing and a curse at times. It is reassuring to know that she has such a deep understanding of the script, but, as such, she can be an exacting master as we try to bring about her vision for the play.”
Of course, this play – like all good theatrical works – becomes a contract between the doer and the watcher and each has an obligation, observes Ellis: "It is a privilege to get the chance to do this play, because plays like this don't come along everyday – but it comes at a price – people know it (and the movie) and have certain expectations and we have to bring our best.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf can be seen at 1812 Theatre from April 18 – May 5