Yes, sorry, yet another turgid chapter from my less than scintillating theatrical history. I heard a rumour to the effect that our 'neighbours', Teddington Theatre Club (TTC), were planning a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Out of curiosity I bought a script and I can still remember vividly where I was when finally I turned the last page, sat back in relief and hoped that I would never meet any of those ghastly people ever again! Well, needless to say, I failed to get another part I was after and so, tart that I am, I thought I would take another look at the play.
I am always careful to avoid superlatives especially when it comes to 'luvviedom' but that play is drama at its very best. It isn't easy to watch (or act!) because it shows four people slowly but surely flaying the skin off each other. In essence, a middle-aged college professor and his equally middle-aged wife living on a campus somewhere in the America north east and after a staff drinks party, invite back to their house a very much younger married couple, he being at the start of his academic teaching career. Then, slowly but inexorably, the psychological blood begins to flow! It becomes clear that the older and more sophisticated couple, George and Martha, have considerable marital problems and soon their vicious battles embroil the youngsters, Nick and Honey, who, and no surprise here, have their domestic problems, too.
It all sounds too ghastly for words but Edward Albee pulls it off by complying with Aristotle's three principles of theatrical unity, that is, unity of place (one location), unity of action (the plot extends uninterrupted by sub-plots) and unity of time (that is, theatre time equals real time). In this play all the action is centred on the living-room of George and Martha. The play runs nearly three hours with two small intervals and covers just the one evening in the lives of the characters just as it is one evening in the lives of the audience. The director of our production decided, brilliantly, to play it in traverse, that is, with the audience on two sides. Thus, we the actors were like mice scuttling about in a cage in a laboratory. The feeling of claustrophobia was intense.
Again, playing an American, I had the problem of getting the accent right - or at least, as right as I could. George was an uptight, Massachusetts academic and I remembered that sort of 'Brahmin' type spoke very similarly to upper-class Brits. It's very easy to do a Brit toff's voice because all you have to do is lock the lower jaw so that it barely moves. Suddenly, you'll find yourself hitting all those consonants that hitherto you simply slurred over - well, at least I do! Then add the faintest of American accents and you come out sounding like Cary Grant even if, as in my case, I didn't much look like him!
The lady in the photo whose name I have forgotten (mea culpa!) was an absolute eye-opener for me. I spent weeks before the rehearsals trying to work out the psychological imperatives driving George to do and say what he does and then I met my 'Martha'! She didn't bother with any of that pseudo-intellectual guff, she just got on and acted the part the way the words led her. She was brilliant, truly, the star of the show. I'm glad I did the play because although it is exceedingly tough stuff it is drama at its very best. Alas, the film, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who were made for the roles of Martha and George not least because I suspect that they shared many of their characteristics, never quite works for me. Obviously it was rewritten and the action escapes outside the confines of the living-room which deflates the claustrophobia.
I suppose it is still performed here and there so if a production comes near you I do urge you to give it a try. The smaller the theatre, by the way, the better it will work.