Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is part of Brasenose College’s Arts Week, a celebration of drama, music, poetry and more. Some of the events are taking place outdoors but Edward Albee’s play of scathing wit and vicious attacks is performed in a small room, the Platnauer Room, whose dark, airless atmosphere adds to the intensity of the play. There are only four characters: George, Martha and the hapless couple Nick and Honey, who are used as pawns in George and Martha’s alcohol-soaked destructive games. I believe the play is usually a good three hours long; this version has been carefully cut to two hours. It is exhausting for the audience, so it must be even harder for the performers to keep up such a level of intensity.
Like a dark tennis match, advantage swings back and forth between the two main protagonists, with Nick and Honey sucked in to fuel their attacks. Martha behaves outrageously towards Nick, but it is all for the purpose of getting back at George. George, for his part, speaks much of the time with suppressed anger, so his occasional roars of “MARTHA!” make the whole audience jump. At first, the other couple seem to be there just to provide an audience and foil for George and Martha (no point attacking each other so viciously if there is no one there to watch) - but gradually their sordid, sorry little secrets are dug out. George is particularly good at digging and then exploiting. In the end, Martha breaks one of their complicated rules, Nick and Honey leave and George gets the last laugh on Martha. They go quietly out together.
This is a difficult play, very dependent on four strong performances. Brasenose College’s production does not disappoint. Amelia Poppy Sparling as Martha has the right mix of viciousness, flirtatiousness and vulnerability; Nick Williams can be world-weary, cleverly scathing and outright angry, swinging between these in surprising ways. Ed Barr-Sim’s Nick - at first a polite younger man - learns to assert himself but proves no match for George’s ascerbic tongue. Tanya Lacey-Solymar’s Honey has a simpering giggle, much despised by George, but she too learns something about herself.
I would strongly recommend checking out this contribution to Brasenose College’s Arts Week. Just one hint to the organisers: it would be really helpful if you could rustle up some programmes, as there was no info available on the night about the production or the rest of the week's scheduled events (and I wanted to know!).