It’s been 44 years since Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made its debut on Broadway, but it still seems extraordinarily fresh. Why? The obvious answer is that the subject matter — the battle of the sexes — is timeless. Anyone in a heterosexual relationship will experience a shudder of recognition at certain points during a performance of this play, if not all the way through. But I don’t think that’s the reason. Rather, it’s because Albee’s ear for dialogue is so good. His ability to capture the rhythms and cadences of the way people speak is uncanny.
Paradoxically, even though Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set in the Eisenhower era, the characters sound so lifelike that they seem more like people we know than the characters in most contemporary plays. Unless, of course, they’re contemporary plays by Edward Albee. This production, which arrives in the West End via Broadway, has been garlanded with awards — and it’s not hard to see why. Kathleen Turner’s screen debut was in Body Heat, a steamy remake of Double Indemnity, and she brings the same air of sexual menace to the role of Martha, the gin-soaked faculty wife at the centre of this play. At one point, Martha describes herself as an ‘earth mother’, but she’s more like a textbook castrating bitch. Turner lopes around the stage like a slightly disorientated lioness, snarling at the pathetic men who dare to cross her path.
Bill Irwin as George — her poor, broken husband — is, if anything, even better. He plays the fortysomething history professor as a sardonic wit, seemingly too sophisticated to be drawn into his wife’s demented head games. This makes it all the more shocking when George eventually cracks, entering the fray with a gusto that puts Martha to shame.