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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (article first published : 2007-07-3)

One normally approaches Edward Albee’s classic play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which first opened on Broadway in 1962, with a certain amount of trepidation. The writing is brilliant but, after all, it’s close on three hours of a husband and wife arguing and eventually tearing each other to pieces.

However, in the Baxter Theatre’s production recently seen on the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the undercurrents are beautifully channelled. Director Janice Honeyman is more widely known for her work in comedy and pantomime and this flair for humour is very clear in the opening scenes which crackle along at a zinging rate. This leads the audience into a comfortable space from which they will soon be jolted as the banter between George and Martha becomes more vicious.

Norman Coates’ monochrome set is impressive in its simplicity, with furniture in different shades of tan. George’s comfortable haven of a dark green armchair stands out as if in silent protest. A table is plentifully laden with booze. It has to be – the drinks will come fast and furious!

An elegant balustrade and slatted panels offer a good background for Mannie Manim’s lighting design which also subtlely alters the sweeping backdrop of colour to indicate the passage of time throughout this night of words.

George and Martha are played by Sean Taylor and Fiona Ramsay who both put in superlative performances. They are arguing from the moment we meet them. They’ve just come back from one of Martha’s father’s parties. Father, by the way, is president of the university at which George is a senior lecturer. George is about to head for bed when Martha blithely announces that they have guests coming. Frantically trying to cram an ashtray full of cigarette stompies into a teacup, she informs him that she’s asked the new lecturer and his wife to pop round after the party.

And so begins a salvo of words from both sides as Nick and Honey, their younger and less sophisticated guests, look on in amazement. George and Martha’s command of witty repartee heavily dosed with sarcasm thunders, sparkles and slithers around their ears.

Fiona Ramsay is glittering, waspish, a vamp and a tyrant, all in one. The play relies heavily on her consummate capacity to handle mood swings and different speech patterns which range from bellows to whispers. A chewer of ice cubes – “like a cocker spaniel”, her husband quips - she keeps up a punishing and unrelenting pace.

As Martha’s sparring partner, husband and whipping boy, Sean’s George is beautifully underplayed, his enigmatic humour offsetting his wife’s virulent and antagonistic repartee. Slightly shambling in his comfortable cardigan, his little mannerisms and slightly nervous twitches indicate a simmering impatience waiting to blow. His manner of speech almost halts itself but while he often seems distracted and slack-jawed, he’s every bit on top of the game as she is.

And it is a game – not the arguments and the insults – but something deeper. A game that has a poignant origin. As the night progresses and the booze flows, Martha heads for the rails and although George repeatedly warns her, she eventually breaks the rules. So it’s all-out war from George who pushes her like an interrogating officer until he achieves his desired result, stripping off her armour layer by layer to expose the sad truth. All played out, they are left emotionally stripped but still together, Martha at her most vulnerable and George gently joshing her along to raise a smile.

The two supporting characters have a tough act to follow in this play and it is to Erica Wessels and Nicholas Pauling’s credit that they held their own in the august company of two of South Africa’s finest actors.

Erica is endearing as the prissy Honey in a neat button-up tidy suit with tidy shoes with an Alice band holding her hair tidily in place. Devoid of make-up, she’s all polite smiles and syrupy laughs, the tidiness going a bit awry later. The more tiddly she gets, the more adventurous and independent she becomes.

Nicholas Pauling perfectly fits the bill as the young stud that sends Martha’s blood racing. He’s suitably chauvinistic, patronising and smug and completely without principles. Nick is en route to the top and he doesn’t care how he gets there – and that includes pushing George out of the way.

This production will no doubt run in Cape Town at the Baxter. It’s worth a trip to the Mother City to see it! – Caroline Smart




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