BWW Review: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at Holden Street Theatres
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Wednesday 22nd January 2020.
Butterfly Theatre chose an American classic, Edward Albee's psycho-drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a very early entry into Adelaide's 2020 theatre year. I will point out right up front that this is a superb production, but it only has a short run, 7:30 pm nightly to Saturday, closing on Sunday with a 4 pm matinee, so book tickets right now. Do not delay for a second. Part proceeds go to the South Australian Country Fire Service on bookings made through trybooking.com.
The president of New Carthage University has held a party and his daughter and son-in-law, Martha and George, have now arrived home at 2 am. Alcohol flowed freely and she, in particular, is the worse for wear. They begin bickering, verbal sparring, which immediately draws attention to Angela Short's very clever set, painted white lines depicting the four sides of a boxing ring, an armchair in one corner, a record player in another, a low seat and coffee table in the third, and the all-important, well-stocked bar in the last. Chairs for the audience are placed at the rear and sides of the playing area of the stage to continue this theme, effectively making it theatre in the round, but be extra quick off the mark if you want to book one of the limited ringside seats.
It is 1962 and George is a member of the History Department. He is 46, and aware that he is never going to be the department head, having only held that position briefly, by default, during the war, when others were away, fighting. Martha, at 52 is his senior and she is equally unhappy as her hopes that George would be groomed by her father to eventually take over as president have long been dashed.
Martha reminds George that they have invited a new member of the faculty and his wife to drop in for a nightcap and, in due course, Nick and Honey arrive. They believe him to be a new member of the Mathematics Department, but he corrects them, pointing out that he is joining the Biology Department. Nick and Honey are the bright, enthusiastic, and ambitious new breed, he being only 29 and she 26. George and Martha continue their acrimonious sniping, drawing the two younger people into a series of 'games', of which only the older couple know the rules and which leave the younger ones floundering. It is soon revealed that Nick and Honey's marriage, too, is far from idyllic. The final 'game' changes everything, Nick and Honey escape, and George and Martha are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
All four performers have a wealth of experience in major roles, performing for several companies, between them having won or been nominated for a number of awards for their work. Consistent and cohesive accents, plus believable varying levels of drunkenness, were testament to the skills and talent in this ensemble.
Brant Eustice plays George, a bitter man facing a midlife crisis, a future going nowhere, and a toxic marriage. Eustice creates a powerful character who delights in the often sadistic mind-games that he plays with Martha or, perhaps more accurately, against her. Eustice gives us what we now refer to as a 'control freak', making up for his lack of power and influence at work through his dominance at home. Eustice gives another of his completely absorbing performances in the role.
Martha is played by Bronwyn Ruciak, walking heavily, unsteadily, and occasionally having to catch her balance, giving every impression that her character is well past the point where she should have stopped drinking. Ruciak displays a vast emotional range, as the self-destructive and masochistic Martha as she goads George until he retaliates with his twisted manipulations then, having brought it upon herself, she wants him to stop, knowing that he will not.
Eustice and Ruciak spark off of each other's performances, building the intensity and passion with every line, in a complex cat and mouse interaction.
Nick is played by Robert Bell, who gives us a rather weak-willed character who quickly falls under George's influence, joining in, and allowing himself to be manipulated, occasionally struggling to extricate himself, only to then fall under the influence of Martha. Bell develops his character with an authenticity in accordance with the events to which his character is subjected.
Madeleine Herd plays Honey, who is, as the saying goes, not the sharpest knife in the cutlery draw; far from it. Herd shows Honey's simplicity in a variety of ways, from blank expressions when the conversations go over her head, to childlike moments, giggling, and a total inability to drink a couple of brandies without the need to race to the bathroom and throw up, then fall asleep on the tiled floor. Herd avoids all of the pitfalls that could easily turn this character into a caricature, maintaining a very believable persona.
There are many layers to Albee's play and the director, Angela Short, and her assistant, Matthew Chapman, have brought a fresh approach to the work, which still has great relevance in this 'me, too' era.
Original music is provided by Phil Short, adding to music prescribed in the script, and Stephen Dean has provided another of his subtle and effective lighting designs, adding further detail to this wonderful production.