Sunday, May 21, 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Photo by Joey Demczuk
Ensemble Theatre presents WHO'S AFRAID OF THE VIRGINIA WOOLF?, by Edward Albee, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 11May - 18 June.

From the 1999 biography: Edward Albee - Singular Journey, by Mel Gussow:
(the scene is] the living room of a house on the campus of a small New England college." Act One: the Fun and Games begin. "Set in darkness. Crash against front door. MARTHA's laughter heard. Front door opens, lights are switched on. MARTHA enters, followed by GEORGE." Martha is "a large, boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger. Ample, but not fleshy." George, "her husband, 46. Thin; hair going gray. 
Uta Hagen, as Martha, delivered the first words of the play, "Jesus H. Christ," followed by laughter from the audience. Later, the play was to become legendary, make several fortunes, and establish Edward Albee as the first playwright since Eugene O'Neill to break through from Off-Broadway to Broadway and continue his exhilarating ride into theatrical history.

At the Ensemble Theatre a new production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, Directed by Iain Sinclair, has opened and ought not to be missed, continuing Mr Gussow's predicted ride into history for Mr Albee and this play.

Entering the Ensemble theatre one meets a wonderful Design, by Michael Hankin, of the room of the house inhabited by George (Darren Gilshenan) and Martha (Genevieve Lemon), where they will entertain in a long journey into day - to the rise of a new dawn - Nick (Brandon McClelland) and Honey (Claire Lovering), a young married couple, new to the faculty of this New England university college. It is set in 1962. The architectural solutions and the handsome and detailed 'dressing' of this Design by Mr Hankin is extraordinarily impressive, and along with a meticulous and a similarly detailed Lighting Design, both naturalistic and 'mood atmospheric', by Sian James-Holland, creates an expectant sense for the quality of the production (no Belvoir glass-box installation art, here).

What follows is an explosively hilarious and harrowing performance from Genevieve Lemon, as Martha, balanced and equalled by Darren Gilshenan, as her husband, George. The play looks at the compromises and commitments that a marriage must take to survive when it is sprung from a deep and passionate love, and thence must endure through the long passing of time all of its lessons of disappointments and tragedy. Where time has unravelled relentlessly, and enough, to allow the participants to experience, vitally, the thwarting of the ambitions and hopes of their youth - of career and children. It tells us of a relationship that refuses to allow the passionate depths of love to be extinguished with the passing of 'lust-filled' time, to ever, even, waver to the crushing cruelties/habits of the bourgeois world's usual method of 'animal' containment. Martha and George have invented a way to lash out at the conventions/obstacles of their world/society despite their 'failures' and still maintain a respect and electric pulse to stay and 'celebrate' being together. Albeit, being in a savage world, savage means may be required - will be employed.

We have seen the institution of marriage, many times, savagely examined in dramatic literature before, and for me, Strindberg's DANCE OF DEATH, resonates as I watch Albee's play, although, unlike the Strindberg there seems to me, as the new dawn rises at the end of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, a light of optimism for this joined couple, 'bleeding' though they may be, shining forth - for, as a new day begins, there has been created a new context for survival as partners.

Martha and George are no ordinary couple, they are a couple of brilliantly erudite wits, sensitive and over sensitised to their predicament, and their means to continue to exhalt and not surrender to mediocrity are not in any way ordinary. In middle-age they are in the bewilderment of how to continue to live/survive together, and they have found a modus operandi that sparks from a loving savagery and education - a knowledge of the history of mankind, of historical inevitability. It seems they have adopted the 'All's Fair in Love and War' apparatus to their interactions and everything and everybody are grist to their enlivenment. Enter Nick and Honey.

This play is 55 years old but is a classic that still survives and mirrors the modernity of our present spiralling morality with frightening power in a recognisable comic-tragic set of truths. This play opened on Broadway, in 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis loomed to threaten a nuclear war. In 2017, our world  feels just as threatened and the effect on the cornerstone of our societal structure, the family, feels, with this production of the play, just as cynically exposed, vulnerable. Our chromosomal 'soups' fragile in the evolving movement of time and history.

This meeting we sit to watch begins at 2am after a long and boring faculty party. Tired and drunk Martha and George arrive in taunting form and prepare to entertain two youngsters at the beginning of their marriage and careers. During the course of the play they become more tired and more drunk and the verbal fun and games of a true and false history - with agreed rules of engagement - funny and ugly, combust improvisationally into situations called Get the Guest, Hump the Hostess and Bringing Up Baby, employing excoriating comedy and outrageous confrontations. Nick and Honey, toys for this exploit, limp off home, at its end, injured but surviving.

WHO'S AFARID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? was Albee's first full length play, written at the age of 34. It is in length some three hours long. The stimulating content matter of this play with its startling linguistics and controlled musical 'symphonic' shape - this is no chamber music piece, despite the small number of 'instruments' involved - conjured and crafted by Mr Albee, combined with four brilliantly courageous and sustained performances, tempered with a Directorial hand of such sureness in a Design of such pleasing assurance, has the literal time in the theatre flit by, be of no consequence. Quality engrosses one and invigorates one. You will not feel exhaustion when you leave the Ensemble.

Truthfully, you might be disturbed but you will know you have been alive. Originally, the play offended its audience with its language and frank sexual conversations, the play content baffled its audiences and some critics of its time took the play as an absurdist exercise, but with the passing of time, the content matter and its psychological underpinnings are now readable and appreciated as a heightened naturalism. Time has given us a knowledge that gives us easy access to what is going on, just as we now can make 'sense' of the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Both in their time challenging to comprehension.

Ms Lemon is having a stellar year (THE HOMOSEXUALS OR THE FAGGOTS) and is now crowning her illustrious career with a great performance as Martha, plumbing its grief, its fury, its comedy and its white hot acts of love with the surety of an identification to the sophisticated complexities of being in a love-bound marriage. Mr Gilshenan, well known to most as a comic actor, shows the breadth of his talent with this well-honed and constructed artistry, carrying George's bombardment from Martha with a resilient wit and tireless love, no matter its exhausting demands. Mr McClelland, at the beginning of his career (THE PRESENT, THE GOLDEN AGE) under the guidance of Mr Sinclair calibrates his Nick with wise and delicate surety, while Ms Lovering ensures that Honey brings enlightenment to the intricacies of the dramaturgical structures of Mr Albee's intentions.

All praise to the writer, Edward Albee, one of the greats of the theatre, and to Iain Sinclair who manages this great text with insight and masterful control. All elements of this production are finely thought and wrought. Following on from his work on OF MICE AND MEN, for Sport For Jove, a year or so ago, here is a talent that ought to be continued to be vigorously nurtured.

Sydney has had two great productions this year of two extraordinary pieces of playwriting: BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, by Rajiv Joseph, at the Old FitzTheatre, and now, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, by Edward Albee, at the Ensemble Theatre.

This production is not to be missed if you savour the theatre.

P.S. History in the foyer again: It was wonderful to see Iain Sinclair, the present Director of this play, talking animatedly with John Clark, who had Directed the original Australian production for the Old Tote Theatre Company, in 1964, with Alexander Hay, Jacqueline Kott, Kevin Miles and Wendy Blacklock. The production that controversially launched the burgeoning Australian theatre practice into the modern era with protests against led by church and the press. I was a schoolboy and was not allowed to see the play, but I remember reading the Sydney Daily Mirror and its front page stories of shock and condemnation. Imagine a theatre play production, today, hitting our newspapers front pages?

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