Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Marriage of inconvenience
Steve Cramer talks to artistic director James Brining about Dundee Rep’s take on Edward Albee’s modern classic of marital trauma
All of us know couples to whom argument is salt and pepper to the relationship. There is indeed plenty of precedent in the theatre for work centring on the dysfunctional marriage; in the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe, this was exemplified by James Brally’s Life in a Marital Institution, which coined the phrase ‘tantric conflict’ to strong comic effect. But surely the daddy of them all is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, memorable in the theatre over many revivals, and in the cinema version for performances from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor which you couldn’t help but speculate came uncomfortably close to reality.
Discomfort, though, is part of this play’s journey. The compelling question underneath a scenario in which a middle-aged couple invite a much younger couple to dinner, then proceed to tear each other and their guests to pieces with ugly psychological byplay is not so much why the houseguests stay, but why does the audience? So ingenious is Albee’s construction that we feel forced to witness this ungracious spectacle, perhaps making us complicit.
James Brining, who will be directing Dundee Rep’s production can see more emotional depth to our evening with George and Martha than might at first be imagined. ‘It feels a little like watching Big Brother, with George Galloway rolling around as a cat and Rula Lenska doing whatever she was doing,’ he says. ‘We get an insight into a relationship which is uncomfortably intimate. These people, Martha and George, are incredibly intelligent, and that makes the play exciting and challenging for the audience. They are so in love with playing games – it’s the basis of their relationship. When you read the play you think it’s about people playing games, fucking with each other’s heads, and it is. But in rehearsal you realise that it’s also about how deeply, deeply damaged these people are, by upbringing, friends, relationships and each other. But they love each other simultaneously.’
Brining’s parallel with reality TV is intriguing, as it again raises the notion of the play as a spectacle that’s often hard to stomach. Part of this sense is achieved by its claustrophobic design. ‘There’s the sense of a boxing or wrestling match that goes on in this space. It’s a space from which you can’t escape – we’ve set up a design that emphasises that sense of an arena for conflict, without hitting them over the head with it – there aren’t boxing gloves or anything. But there’s a sense of mercilessness, if you leave, you have to come back again – I mean it’s meant to look real, but I want to create the sense of a pressure cooker. I think of looking through the glass in a zoo – there’s a sense of complicity in what you witness, as people are ripped to pieces.’
This play is also something of a departure for Dundee Rep, as Brining explains. ‘It’s about a long relationship, which is different for us, since a lot of our work here has been about attracting young audiences. This would be enjoyed by anyone, including the young, but it’s good that this time we’ve got that older perspective.’
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dundee Rep, Sat 28 Feb–Sat 21 Mar.