Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Sydney Opera House (NSW)

Review by Justin Clarke

Presented as part of the Sydney Festival. Written by Edward Albee, directed by Margaret Harvey, Sydney Associate Director, Mitchell Butel.

Despite being nearly 60 years old, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf remains one of the most popular plays performed around the world. Fuelled by alcohol and some of the most complex antagonists in the theatrical zeitgeist, Albee’s play focuses on themes such as power, age, sex, illusions, and disillusions.

The controversial academic couple George (Jimi Bani) and Martha (Susan Prior) have invited their new, younger colleagues Nick (Rashidi Edward) and Honey (Juanita Navas-Nguyen) over for a nightcap following an earlier party. What follows is a cat and mouse cage fight constructed by George and Martha, with Nick and Honey caught in the centre of it. As the night progresses, the conversations between the couples become more severe, and just who exactly wins the ‘game’ the couples are playing leaves the audience in a state of anxiety until the very end.

First Nation director Margaret Harvey wanted to bring Albee’s writing (which was a searing take on American society in the 1960’s) into an ‘Australia at a crossroads’. Harvey’s lens through which they have staged this production reflects on how we as an Australian society hide our own truths and ultimately asks, who is afraid of the truth?

Each character is afraid of the truth, afraid of losing to each other and afraid of losing their power in their relationship.

In their casting Harvey has stated that they were colour-conscious to highlight the socio-political ideals of Albee’s script in a modern context. This choice has made the statement that race also plays into power and identity, along with gender, age and social class.

With a production that is performed numerous times all over the world, the traditionally Caucasian, American characters hold one meaning within its themes. Harvey’s targeted choice at changing this narrative aims to make its audience question how our modern context can address our own truths and bias. However, this choice doesn’t always hold the gravitas that Harvey has tried to achieve.

Casting BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour) actors as George and Nick doesn’t quite hold the mirror up to Australia that Harvey wishes. Perhaps if this choice was done for either George and Martha or Nick and Honey, then Harvey’s vision would have come through much more explicitly to position audiences to reflect on power dynamics of class and colour in a modern world. This would have been particularly prevalent when it comes to George and Martha playing their twisted game with each other and breaking down the facades of Nick and Honey.

Ailsa Paterson’s set has an artfully juxtaposed design to it. The four walls that make up George and Martha’s house are made of Perspex, each side raising one by one at the end of each act. In addition to this, the walls of the stage are scribbled with variations of the plays title, with certain words circled or placed in bold. This artistic decision aptly reveals the nature of truth and those who hide behind their own self-made walls in their relationships. In fact, this plays perfectly in George and Martha’s lies they tell themselves in their game they play throughout the night. Each character is afraid of the truth, afraid of losing to each other and afraid of losing their power in their relationship.

As Martha and George, Susan Prior and Jimi Bani competently play off one another as they devolve throughout the evening. Prior’s Martha portrays a tough exterior, but the cracks are shown as the night progresses. Against Bani’s George, the power dynamic played a delicately shown balancing act with Prior spitting insults at Bani, and the latter taking disgusting revenge in his words against her.

Juanita Navas-Nguyen and Rashidi Edward play the unsuspecting couple, Honey and Nick, well with the pair garnering a more believable relationship than their volatile counterparts. Navas-Nguyen had a subtle innocent quality in her performance, where at times you would find yourself drawn to watch her small reactions to the evening’s events. Edward’s scenes with Bani’s George drew the story along and worked to serve Harvey’s directorial vision.

There was a lot of stumbling over dialogue throughout the performance which often could be found to be either distracting or on purpose – the amount of alcohol the couples drink is rather immense so it could have been an addition of realism into the piece. On top of this, the script seemed to be lost at stages through a lack of diction and direction. Due to this, particular climaxes in George and Martha’s game of toying with each other and the younger couple often came out of nowhere or did not have the resonance it required. Playing with silences would have added a much greater effect of tension and anxiety into the space between the actors.

If you are a fan of the work, you may find yourself wanting to have seen more done with  the script and ultimately played out between the four actors. For those who are new to the text, this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf acts as a suitable way into reading the themes of the play in a modern world and the complexities of the characters in this timeless classic.

Reviewer Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival until Sunday 23rd January. Full information and where to buy tickets can be found here

Playwright Edward Albee
Director Margaret Harvey
Set & Costume Designer Ailsa Paterson
Lighting Designer Nigel Levings
Sound Designer/Composer Andrew Howard
Associate Director Mitchell Butel
Stage Manager Bridget Samuel
Assistant Stage Manager Isabella Strada

GEORGE Jimi Bani
NICK Rashidi Edward
HONEY Juanita Navas-Nguyen
MARTHA Susan Prior

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