BWW Review: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, Harold Pinter Theatre

Much has been written about the snack ban instigated by this Edward Albee revival at the behest of its star, Imelda Staunton. No problems on that score: with performances of such scorching intensity sustained over a shattering three hours, audiences will be unwilling to release a breath, let alone distract with a rustling crisp packet.

Albee's 1962 masterpiece is set in the East Coast town of New Carthage. George is a plodding associate professor in the history department of the college where wife Martha's father is president; the original intention was to groom George as his successor. In that, as in so many things, Martha has been bitterly disappointed, and the battleground of their marriage claims new victims when an unsuspecting young couple, new professor Nick and wife Honey, join them for a post-faculty party nightcap.

James Macdonald has no interest in indulgent, blousy melodrama. Heightened, yes, but his production is painfully precise in both its animated black comedy and wretched despair, a deliberate crescendo that gives each fresh level of horror an appalling psychological plausibility. These are not monsters; they are a dark mirror, human suffering hidden beneath social constructs writ large. Though revealed at a terrible cost, there is a bracing audacity to this unvarnished truth, in contrast to insidious, corrosive illusions.

Martha gleefully recalls a humiliating boxing defeat for George, and there is something of the prizefighter about Staunton's exceptionally vigorous incarnation. She lands sharp jabs upon her husband - "If you existed, I'd divorce you" - and circles the young biology professor with a predator's cunning, searching for a way to claim this tender flesh. Her role-playing is intensely physical, whether adopting a girlish voice, slinking down the stairs in a provocative outfit, or - doing Momma Rose proud - dirty dancing with one man while expertly sniping at another.

Conleth Hill offers a pitch-perfect complement to Staunton's restless malcontent, offsetting her nimble movement, brash candour and weaponised sexuality with a shuffling, hangdog physicality, muttered, snide irony - delivery dry as the Sahara - and desires firmly buried, occasionally surfacing with the force of a geyser. He's the "portrait of a man drowning", yet there's a clear sense that in some way he has chosen this state.

For in Macdonald's astute reading, the tragedy of the play lies in the fact that this marriage, for all its performative nastiness, is one founded on love and partnership. A wickedly funny Hill and Staunton show the warped pleasure in the couple's rituals and their ability to shock, outwit, terrorise and dismantle any opposition.

Staunton savours every syllable of the graphic revelation about her scandalous former marriage - "theoretically you can't get an annulment if there's entrance". Hill's George amuses himself with pedantic deconstruction, proving superior intellect while upsetting the rhythm of social niceties - some compensation for his lost dream of being a novelist. Most of all, the spouses crave and deny one another's attention.

Though they also frequently wound each another - "You two don't miss," observes Nick - there's a grudging admiration, an acknowledgment that no one could replace this sparring partner. Agonising, then, when the carefully calibrated mutual destruction spins out of control; as with any great tragedy, you find yourself desperately hoping for an intervention to prevent its inexorable descent into ruin.

The younger duo admirably keeps pace. Luke Treadaway's humourless golden boy Nick is smug and arrogant, totally assured of his position and coolly disinterested in the threat he poses: to George personally, to his generation, and to the victims of a genetic theory with worrying master race undertones.

But this slick specimen of blonde ambition - who might have walked off a Fifties billboard - is mercilessly dissected. His marriage is hollow, the hasty result of an hysterical pregnancy and cynically guided by his wife's inheritance; he's ready to betray it for the mere suggestion of career progression. Like their hosts', it's already a union curdled by regret.

Imogen Poots makes an impressive stage debut as giggly, brandy-guzzling Honey, a free spirit - exhibited by wild interpretative dance - trapped by convention. In exchanging an all-powerful father for a promising but comparatively weaker husband, and in channelling unhappiness through drinking to excess (Poots brilliantly lists into an unconscious sprawl over the course of several minutes), she's clearly a Martha in the making.

Tom Pye's design is murky, claustrophobic and almost subterranean: jagged stone wall, decaying piles of books, and the hellish clanging of the tubular door chimes. It's an apt framing for the final reckoning, met both by a primal scream and by a desolation unbearably hushed and intimate. Never mind audience snacking: the sound that will stay with me is the rattling ice in the glass held by a silently weeping Staunton. Extraordinary theatre.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Harold Pinter Theatre until 27 May

Read our interview with Conleth Hill

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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