Rapture Theatre brought their newest production – Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– to Macrobert last week, on May 3-4. The high-strung, emotionally-tolling play, left both the actors and their audience quite ruffled and spent at its finale.
You may know the name of the production by its notable film adaptation, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who were famously chosen to portray the protagonists because their own tumultuous marriage closely resembled the carnage of the characters’). If not, I highly recommend you watch the various stage productions/ film adaptations, or read the original play, as Albee was hailed as one of the most influential American playwrights.
The plot revolves around George – a college Associate Professor of History, and Martha – the daughter of the President of same college, and their invitation to a younger couple they just met for drinks at their house, following a late-night party. Once the two couples collide, however, their relationships begin to unravel, hidden cracks and chasms start to materialise, and the realities of marriage, bitterness, and loss take solid form.
The play itself, written in the early 60s, is of course a lampoon on the idyllic, American, nuclear 50s family, with the breadwinner father, aproned, trim homemaker mother and their 2.5 kids. Albee’s work strips the veneer off that pretentious ideal and shows the realities behind gloss and propriety – of dirty laundry, denial, blame and the raw emotional burdens of real partnerships.
Even the title, besides being a plot detail, utilises Virginia Woolf (another avid critic of upper-class sensibilities) as the means by which to peel the layers of pretense and illusion, via violent means if necessary, in order to get to the truth. And that was, indeed, the perfectly-captured essence of Rapture Theatre’s production.
The troupe’s performance was sharp and well-oiled, while still retaining subtlety. Whereas the original play is a prime example of Absurdist theatre – featuring psychological loops, incongruous reasoning, and abysmally black humour – this production, while still maintaining much of the darker unhingement, also incorporated some very lighthearted and perfectly-timed slapstick, turning the production into a bona fide roller-coaster.
This way, the performance essentially began as a comedy, featuring a nagging wife and a resigned, sighing husband. I enjoyed watching the subtle elbow nudges among audience couples, no doubt symbolising their recognition and relatability to the characters onstage.
It was interesting to see those playful sentiments replaced with gradual discomfort, pity, disbelief, shock and outrage, as the audience realised the depth of the rabbit hole they were privy to, and as the comedic grimaces of the beginning turned to hysterical discoveries and broken hearts.
The use of physical comedy, light score and well-executed slapstick lulled us into the sense of this being nothing short of a feel-good production. Meanwhile, of course, we were being smoothly led closer to the precipice, one ambiguous development at a time. Indeed, the plot flowed so gingerly into the imminent abyss, that the audience would not find their bearings fully until they got up to go home among the shambles.
The production featured a star-studded cast. Led by Sara Stewart – who you may have seen in Batman Begins, The Night Manager, and playing Stella in the Sugar Rush series – as Martha.
Also featured were Paul Albertson – who starred in an episode of Sherlock – as a swaggy, cowboy-esque Nick; Robin Kingsland as an exuberant and vindictive George, and Rose Reynolds as the demure Honey.
The cue timing was impeccable, and the cast’s diverse charisma well-balanced, with no individual solidly dominating the stage, but all embroiled in a constant power-play of verbal stabs and self-defence. The dynamic between George and Martha was palpable as they danced their way through the well-trodden steps of their mutual resentment, eventually collapsing in exhaustion, all guns fired and empty, into each other’s genuinely tender arms.
The production was a proper journey. One whose purpose was perhaps not a destination, but destruction and exposure, yet one that’s nonetheless stemming from the need for truth and release. This resulted in a powerful cathartic experience descending on the audience upon their exit from the theater, and some potent food for thought.
‘Family lives behind closed doors are always a mystery’, I overheard someone say as we were leaving Macrobert, and I couldn’t agree more. Therefore, it’s invaluable having a keyhole, albeit an unsettling one such as this, through which to witness the immense breadth of the spectrum of human relationships. A grand production, and a fantastic performance.