I saw a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf this afternoon at the Bolton Octagon. Yes, I know there should be a question mark after ‘Woolf’, but it won’t show up when I make the title into a hyperlink. It’s been a long day, bear with me. On the back of about three hours of sleep (and about 100 minutes of travel via Greater Manchester’s public transport system, which is never a pleasure), I saw a play that is essentially three hours of four unpleasant people playing mind games with each other – and saw it, at that, in a startlingly intimate production, staged in the round, in which the whites (reds?) of the actors’ eyes were always visible.
And I loved it – but a paragraph of prose is about all I’ve got right now because the coffee I had after the show ended wore off several hours ago, so what follows is going to be a list of random thoughts.
- Director – David Thacker. Excellent. He doesn’t put a foot wrong.
- Set – it’s in the round, there’s furniture rather than a set. The furniture is appropriate, so are the costumes, and the lighting is unobtrusive. The production looks good.
- Seats – wincingly uncomfortable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re watching a very long, very dense play after three hours of sleep and a morning that involved travelling via the hell that is Northern Rail.
- I think this is probably Albee’s best play, but I couldn’t honestly say that I love it, although I did love this production. It’s rich, dense, rewards different interpretations, reveals different layers every time I see it, and is often very funny, but it’s hard work.
- And having said that the play is rich, dense, rewards different interpretations and all the rest of it, I find I don’t have a great deal to say about the play itself anyway. It’s almost 50 years old, we’ve all read it, it is what it is.
- It is, though, about more than simply four drunk people sniping at each other. The Octagon, this time, have put together excellent programme notes, which is nice to see after the magnificently obnoxious ones that accompanied their production of Sweeney Todd earlier this year. There’s a piece about the play, a piece about Albee, and a piece about the film, and they’re all intelligent, well-written and informative. And not patronising. Thank God.
- Kieran Hill and Tammy Joelle as Nick and Honey, both excellent. He’s more predatory than I remember Lloyd Owen being in the Diana Rigg/David Suchet production (which, OK, was fifteen years ago), and none the worse for that, and she deploys her high-pitched laugh to lethal effect. She’s Martha, only with sixty fewer IQ points, a thinner skin, and a far lower tolerance for liquor.
- George Irving’s George is flawless.
- And then there’s Margot Leicester’s Martha. Also flawless. Actually, ‘flawless’ doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s a genuinely surprising performance – wounded and wounding rather than explosive, brutally forceful when it needs to be, but often shockingly quiet. You don’t always get fireworks, but you don’t miss them either; I don’t think I’ve ever been as moved by a Martha as I was by Leicester’s performance. She’s half slasher, half open wound, and she’s extraordinary.
- The final section, after Nick and Honey leave, is taken almost at a whisper, and it’s devastating – but also, oddly, hopeful, more than it usually is.
- The play really benefits from being staged in the round in a relatively small space. The production’s intimacy, as I said, is startling – it’s riveting, painful to watch, and you can’t take your eyes off these people.
The production runs until October 15th. You’ll see showier, starrier stagings of this play, but it’ll be a long time before you see a production as quietly shattering as this one. It’s worth travelling a long way to see this. Even if you have to use Northern Rail.