‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was eviscerating.
Love and hate, desire and disgust, history versus biology and truth versus illusion. State Theatre Company South Australia’s production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ made Edward Albee’s classic American play feel relevant to an Australian audience 60 years later, with deliciously savage performances and starkly beautiful set design in QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre.
The pacing of the three-act play never wavered. Act I, ‘Fun and Games’, introduces history professor George and his intoxicated wife, Martha, who has invited a young biology professor, Nick, and his wife, Honey, over for an after-party. But the “games” involve a searing sparring match between the hosts that builds to a hold-your-breath tension, emphasised by sound designer Andrew Howard’s foreboding drum beat that recurred as each interval approached.
Act II is named ‘Walpurgisnacht’, and was scrawled front and centre in the blackboard-like walls of George and Martha’s living room set, among repeating lines of the play’s title. The word refers to a holiday celebrated in Europe and Scandinavia, with origins in pagan celebrations of fertility rites; and it’s Honey’s fertility that is used in George’s game of “Get the Guests” in Act II.
The final act of this dark comedy, ‘The Exorcism’, begins with a wonderfully unhinged monologue from Martha and builds to a ghastly climax that will surprise anyone discovering the story for the first time.
Presented by Queensland Theatre, the show was directed by Margaret Harvey, a First Nations woman of Saibai Island blood and English heritage, born and raised in Queensland. Harvey explained in the program notes that colour-conscious casting was at the forefront of her mind – and what a fantastic way to breathe new life into the play.
Congolese-born Rashidi Edward made his Queensland Theatre debut as Nick, a character with surprises up his sleeve. Highlights included the awkwardness he exuded in his first scenes with George, as well as his character’s rise to power and fall to powerlessness as Martha worked her magic over him.
Honey was played by Juanita Navas-Nguyen, of Vietnamese and Colombian heritage. With less stage time and dialogue than her three castmates, Navas-Nguyen stood out for her wide-eyed innocence and incredulity while listening to the madness unfold around her, as well as a captivating and unexpected water sequence (kudos to set and costume designer Alisa Paterson and lighting designer Nigel Levings for their handiwork here).
Torres Strait Islander and well-known theatre, film and television actor Jimi Bani handled the character of George adeptly, taking the audience from laughter to stunned silence as he swung from affably abused husband to threatening abuser. His delivery of the very complex dialogue was impressive.
And Bani’s charisma and stage presence was required to match Susan Prior’s Martha. From the moment her drunken laughter filled the stage in the opening scene to the bitter end, she demanded attention with her portrayal of the sadistic, manipulative housewife, lashing out at others as she swallowed her pain down with her drinks.
This production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ explores the intersection of power with the race, gender, class and age of its characters through emotionally eviscerating dialogue. It asks us to consider how society values sciences versus the arts and ends with a question: who’s afraid of the truth?
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ performs until Saturday, 26 February 2022 at QPAC Playhouse. For more information visit QPAC.
Photos by Brett Boardman