When you attend Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Ensemble Theatre in Sydney, you’ll be able to experience one of the world’s most famous plays in person, live, from a talented cast. Everything about the production is top-notch: the set design, the lighting — and above all, the acting.
The play, by Edward Albee, was first performed in 1962, scooping up major awards like the Tony. Eventually it was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The screen format is probably how most audiences are familiar with it. I know that’s how I did: through catching snippets of the black-and-white film on telly, Taylor and Burton rampaging around.
Experiencing the play live is ten times better than anything the silver screen could come up with. Entering Ensemble’s large theatre, we were greeted with a 1950s living room set up as if the three sides of the audience were the walls. (Used to great effect as one character points out the ‘artwork’ on an invisible wall while facing the audience.)
The title is a misnomer: a few characters repeatedly sing little ditty with the play’s title in it. Instead, it could be called Who’s Afraid of George and Martha. The History professor and his wife, the daughter of New England college’s President, are forces to be reckoned with. After a collegiate party, they invite a newly-arrived couple, Nick and Honey, for some late-night drinks. Drunken chaos devolves. Recriminations ensure. Drinks are drunk, and drunk some more.
I was surprised at how hilarious the script is. So many lines emitted guffaws and chuckles from the audience. Genevieve Lemon, as Martha, commands all eyes with her performance in the first half. Her mercurial-yet-always-amused personality sees her laugh at the mean barbs by her husband George (Darren Gilshenan), while the audience laughs with her and her turns of phrase.
As the night unfolds, Gilshenan and Brandon McClelland, as Nick, start to shine as performers. (Claire Lovering, as Honey, is the weakest link. Not in a performing sense, but because the script doesn’t give her enough to do. She mostly remains a cipher, spoken to and about, but not speaking for herself and her own wishes.) The three main characters battle it out for supremacy, revealing secrets and trying to weasel them out from the others.
Surprisingly, in a play where the characters are out to hurt each other, I was not left emotionally bereft at the end — rather buoyed by the virtuoso performances. Talking to Gilshenan after the performance, we learned that on days when they have two performances, the actors only get a 40-minute break in between the three-hour play. To be able to produce such a tour de force day in and out is a testament to the cast’s abilities.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a classic play brought to life in a stunning way by the Ensemble Theatre team. This is three hours of your life you’ll be happy you spent in the company of Ensemble Theatre.
Co-founder of The Plus Ones, Theresa relishes being exposed to world-class theatre in Sydney.