Elliot Douglas, outgoing Editor-in-Chief, reviews Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the last of this year’s Mermaids productions.
O tempora, o mores – I am now old enough that this semester has seen a number of re-runs of Mermaids shows which took place in my first year in St Andrews – amongst them Twelfth Night, The Importance of Being Earnest and now Edward Albee’s seminal 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Some plays, of course, are well worthy of re-visiting, and it was a joy to watch another version of this show for my last ever theatre review in this town. To put it plainly, this is one of my favourite plays, and seeing it adeptly staged by Charlie Flynn and his team was a wonderful way to bow out of the St Andrews theatre scene. Despite some slight incongruity in acting styles, this production did not disappoint.
As Flynn points out in the director’s note, the play is – quite simply – not easy. Running to three hours of wordy, drunken dialogue, Woolf requires dedicated, focused actors who are afforded little let-up. The cast rose to the occasion admirably and in the three long acts, not once did I notice anyone coming out of character or slipping up a line. George Watts and Annabel Steele created an originally nuanced version of the O.G. couple-from-hell, George and Martha. Often these characters are reduced to bickering stereotypes of themselves, especially in the opening act, but for Steele and Watts the keyword was subtlety.
Watts’ quiet energy, suggestive of years of repressed caged anger and resentment, made the moments where George really does lose control all the more powerful. On more than one occasion, where I would have expected Watts to shout, he opted instead for a hoarse, calm whisper. This had the audience leaning towards the stage in order to catch every word. His bowed body language and self-conscious hand movements hinted at an advanced middle age, without labouring the point. Combined with his perfect timing and clear understanding of the wit of the character, this was a truly astonishing performance of an incredibly difficult role.
Similarly, Mermaids’ stalwart Steele did not disappoint. Again, she brought an intimacy and genuineness not always seen in performances of the “braying” Martha. She retained a weary control of the character even in her most off-the-wall moments, reminding the audience of the most important conceit of the play – that, in some way, the viciousness of George and Martha’s dynamic is nothing new, perhaps a drama which is played out every weekend. Martha has perhaps the most complex journey of any character, going from nit-picking wife to sexy seductress to a broken woman within the course of one evening. Steele’s performance allowed the audience to empathise with this sad woman even in moments where her actions verged on the downright evil. The famous “Getting angry, baby?” speech (which even Liz Taylor approached as a competition in how many decibels can be reached) was freshly quiet and her third act “recitation” had me (predictably) in a flood of tears. I laud her immensely for this mature take on the part.
The foils of George and Martha come in the shape of the younger Nick and Honey, played by Griffin Godsick and Brittany Barwise. In many ways, these parts are even more difficult than the older couple, requiring just as perfect timing and understanding of complex characters while also calling for the ability to react to the “fun and games” of George and Martha. While both actors maintained solid characterisation, I was left a little disappointed by their limited scope. Godsick, looking to all intents and purposes like a cross between a Kennedy and a Ken doll, was suitably smarmy as the successful, handsome Nick, but I could have done without his self-conscious glances at the audience and repetitive facial expressions as he reacted to George and Martha. Barwise similarly left me wanting something more. Honey is an incredibly difficult role to keep realistic: she spends most of the play almost too intoxicated to speak legibly and her reactions to the others are deliberately childlike. Barwise maintained the character fantastically and played well in the more absurd comedic moments, but where the dark history of Honey’s hysterical pregnancy is revealed I would have preferred a more subtle take, especially given the parallels the character is supposed to draw with Martha. Whether these aspects of the performance came through Flynn’s direction or the actors’ choices, the play definitely took on a more pantomime-like feel when this couple were on stage.
The play, ideally suited to the claustrophobic Barron, was beautifully staged, with appropriately cluttered set dressing and frumpy, early ’60s costumes. The show calls for little technical prowess, but everything ran smoothly in that department and the music of the time period was a nice touch. All in all, it moved me as it should. There are few plays which are so low-key which can maintain the attention of a 50-strong audience for over three hours on a Friday night, but judging from the gasps and standing ovation with which the show ended, this one certainly did. I commend the cast and crew for bringing such a fantastic play to life with alacrity, charm and a big dollop of pathos.