Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 11 – Jun 18, 2017
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is a nondescript living room but a great deal happens in it. Edward Albee’s wild imagination is let loose in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, a modern classic that seems to be about a marriage breaking down, but the volume of themes and philosophical ideas it explores over a three-hour duration, extends beyond a person’s mental capacities within that one sitting. The incredible richness of Albee’s writing, and his insistence on disobeying conventions of literary coherence, produces something sensationally anti-naturalist, at times very strange, for all its misleading construct of a realist family drama. It all comes together beautifully, the ending result is quite sublime, but it is the disparate elements and divergence of meanings in all its interminable suggestions, that makes it a unique, rarely paralleled work.

Therefore, finding a focus becomes challenging for any production. Director Iain Sinclair uses the play’s absurdist qualities to his advantage, manufacturing a black comedy that not only delivers laughs but also, through its emphasis on uncomfortable contradictions, help draw attention to the many levels of meaning that the text implies. The show is often entertaining, but in spite of the great emotional upheaval that its characters experience, we remain at a distance, always at close observation, but from the outside. Visually pleasing, the staging draws inspiration from 1960s Americana, Michael Hankin’s set design and Sian James-Holland’s lights create a performance space that feels an accurate representation of the era, while establishing a sense of stifling oppressiveness crucial to the psyche of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Four actors conspire with unmistakable simpatico, to form a fascinating piece of theatre. Their personalities are individually distinct, but together they are harmonious, one engrossing organism that drives us through unexpected twists and turns. At the centre is Genevieve Lemon as Martha, ebullient and dedicated, determined to maintain a liveliness in the show even during its darkest troughs. The actor may not be able to sufficiently depict the rage crucial to the story, but there is no mistaking the turbulent existence Martha has to endure. Her husband George is played by Darren Gilshenan, who journeys into bleaker terrain more successfully, but who will be remembered for the mischievous approach he applies to the play’s cynical and sinister complexions. Effortlessly funny, Gilshenan is an engaging presence that keeps us fascinated at every audacious revelation. Similarly alluring is Claire Lovering, whose comedic confidence assures us that the tricks hidden up her sleeve are worth our anticipation. Honey is a small role, but the performer takes every opportunity to shine. Brendon McClelland brings out a complexity in Nick, a deceptively plain upstart, and surprises us with transformations that we never could see coming.

It is about marriage, it is about the way exercise control over one another, it is about the way we build meaning into our lives, it is about the futility of our pursuits. What a viewer will deduce from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf could be a great many things, but there is no denying the nihilistic pessimism of Albee’s creation. In art we can find the truth, and it is without doubt that life can leave us bitter and hopeless. It is also true, that conflicting truths can co-exist, and whether one can perceive light through the darkness, is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about choice.