Books of 2017 vs. Theatre: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Harold Pinter theatre - poster

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter theatre – poster

To continue that Books vs. Theatre series I started with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I want to tell you this week of another play I saw this month in London, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter theatre. 

Like I did for the other plays I saw that week, I decided to read the book before seeing it, as to make sure I’ll understand the language. But although it is quite a necessary precaution for a foreigner about to see a Shakespeare play on stage, this one did not seem as obscure to me at all. This huis clos « examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Late one evening, after a university faculty party, they receive an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests, and draw them into their bitter and frustrated relationship. »

I decided to skim through the text to save some of the action for Play night and I did well. I didn’t watch the movie either, which my friend told me was very different from the play. Funnily enough, this is the kind of Literature and entertainment I never thought I could like until a few years ago – but I’m irresistibly being drawn to it lately thanks to this wonderful habit the British theatre has to put big stars on stage. As soon as I saw that Imelda Staunton was to star in a play I decided to take a ticket. And I did good.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill at the Harold Pinter theatre

Unlike in France, it is a very well seen thing in the UK for an actor to go back to the stage, get to live that pleasure to be with the audience. It allows everyone to discover their favourite actors differently and in lots of wonderful ways. I will admit I didn’t know Imelda Staunton well before the Harry Potter movies (or Conleth Hill before Game of Thrones for that matter). And when I told my parents I was to see « Dolorès Ombrage » on stage my father (a huge Harry Potter fan), told me « I wouldn’t go, she’s too mean and scary ». That’s how good Imelda Staunton is at taking a role on (and she’s not scary at all once outside the theatre, by the way, but extremely sweet and graceful). No one could ever possibly think of anyone else to play Dolores Umbridge after her performance. So I was extremely eager to see her in something completely different, to paraphrase the Monty Pythons, and on a different media.

Directed by James MacDonald, this take on the Edward Albee play was fantastic. To be fair, I don’t have much to compare it with. I had never read the play before I did it previously to that performance, I had never seen it on stage, I never even saw the movie… But I was transported by the whole thing. The set, the costumes, all of the actors, who were absolutely incredible and perfectly in their characters (the stunning Imelda Staunton as Martha and the superb Conleth Hill as a much better George than Richard Burton was, my friend said, but also Imogen Poots as Honey and Luke Treadaway as Nick). It is really hard to imagine a better cast than this magnificent one.

I can’t even start to tell you about the intensity that is built throughout the play – helped a lot by frankly amazing lightings by Charles Balfour – and the state in which I left the theatre. It was this kind of performance that keeps you in its arms for a while and I woke up the next morning still thinking of it. It was one occasion on which one regrets that in London the curtain inevitably falls after just a couple of salutes. Had it happened in France, they would have had to come back to the stage half a dozen times, weary but happy, to take on all that love and cheering. Overall, it was a wonderful first time for me and an absolute must-see before it ends on May 27th.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee
Harold Pinter Theatre
Until May 27th
Direction: James MacDonald
Starring Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill, with Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway