Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a masterpiece from absurdist playwright Edward Albee. It’s a treat for lovers of his provocative works that look at the human condition with all its flaws and extremes. Queensland Theatre presents the State Theatre Company South Australia production of the play with its original cast and it sure does pack a punch.

Photos by Brett Boardman

It would be unfair to compare this stage version to the 1966 film which garnered every Oscar nomination possible, as well as wins for Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis. But if you’re a fan of that unforgettable interpretation, it does take some getting used to when George and Martha (Jimi Bani and Susan Prior) first come onstage speaking in Aussie accents. The setting remains a college campus in post-war USA.

Bani is an Indigenous man from the Torres Strait Islands. He is part of the deliberate colour-conscious casting from First Nations’ director Margaret Harvey. That immediately gives the character of university history lecturer George a different context when his wife, Martha – the daughter of the college’s president – relentlessly humiliates him for what she sees as his lowly position on the career ladder.

The staging is minimalist, with clear glass panels for walls, a tribal mask as centrepiece, a rectangular moat and blackboard walls covered with chalk writing riffing on the title. Into this setting walk George and Martha when they come home after a faculty do. They’ve obviously drunk a lot of alcohol, with much more to come. Martha’s cackling because someone at the party started singing ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ She mimics it to the tune of ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ from the Disney Three Little Pigs cartoon.

Martha has invited over a younger couple – biologist Nick (Rashid Edward) and his wife Honey (Juanita Navas-Nguyen) – for drinks. Honee keeps being referred to as “thin-hipped”, intended as an insult and suggesting a fragility. Nick is handsome and obviously attractive to the leering Martha. There were only certain dialogue changes relating to Nick’s looks which Albee’s estate granted approval to introduce. (For instance, Edward, from a Congolese background, could hardly be referred to as blonde.)

As the night wears on and everyone gets drunker, Martha and George’s cruel psychological games horrify the younger couple, who also have their own secrets threatening to be revealed with every mouthful of Scotch. It’s a tour de force from the actors, with only Navas-Nguyen having less to work with as she spends a good deal of time on the bathroom floor passed out.

The play, at three hours and 15 minutes, has two short intervals, but overall the time flies by. The only time it felt as if the pace was slowing was at the start of the second act when the two men were on stage together.

Susan Prior (a fixture on TV screens in shows including Puberty Blues, Glitch and Rake) commands the stage as the woman who in one breath is hateful and callous but in the next pitiful and tragic. Bani (seen in TV’s Mabo and The Straits) might seem quite an affable George at first, but as the play careens to its devastating climax, he illustrates his mastery of the character’s many layers to shattering effect. Rashid is up to the task as Nick and the fact that he’s Black makes it all the more uncomfortable when Martha repeatedly refers to him as her houseboy.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is still as searing and relevant today as it was when Albee wrote it and this production does it justice against a fresh lens of modern-day Australia.

Vicki Englund

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