De Silva plays a confrontational MarthaWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Company

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a story about the troubled marriage of George (Joe Tyler Todd) and his wife Martha (Shimali de Silva). When the couple return home from a college party it transpires that Martha has invited a young couple round for a drink. Nick, played by Milo Callaghan, is a young professor and a new recruit to the college. Annabelle Haworth plays Nick’s nervous young wife, Honey. Martha and George lead a series of humiliating and sadistic ‘games’ with the intention of emotionally hurting each other as much as possible. Any semblance of normal public behaviour quickly deteriorates.

The set is a typical kitchen sink-esque, run-of-the-mill middle class sitting room with a large sofa in centre of the Corpus stage. Over the course of the three-part, two and a half hour-long play the set does not change. Perhaps it was Director Katie Woods’ intention to make the audience feel, if not trapped, then plunged uncomfortably close into George and Martha’s complicated, sadistic but ultimately loving marriage. The delivery of speech is fast-paced, each of the characters snapping on each other’s heels, seemingly not listening to each other. The effect of this is a jarring failure of meaningful communication between the characters. I was struck by the lack of some fundamental empathy valve at the heart of this production. This heady and intense play does not dwell in niceties and polite conversation; from when De Silva and Tyler Todd first stumble on stage it is clear they are somewhere between tipsy and drunk. The latter spends a considerable portion of the play bent over the liqueur cabinet, serving up glass after glass after glass of alcohol. The characters converse loudly, very loudly, and bicker and shout and fight. Add to this the sauna effect of Corpus Playrooms during a May heatwave and hopefully you will have an impression of the potency of this invasive interpretation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Shimali De Silva, commands the stage with her bright red dress and long monologues

I was hypnotized by the spectacle of Marth and George verbally tearing each other apart on stage. This is difficult to watch, especially if you grew up as I did in a home where verbal assault was common. However, beyond this perverse exterior, it slowly becomes clear that Martha and George love each other. This sweet, loving base-line of their relationship is unexpected and emerges slowly and subtly throughout the performance. The culmination of this wavering affection comes at the end of the play, in a sad, sweet moment of affection. Tyler Todd’s portrayal of George is outstanding; the audience experiences viscerally his anguish and pain as Martha belittles him and mercilessly exposes his insecurities. He carries the audience along with him, and allows them to understand and forgive his brutal, closing joust which steps outside of the limits of the game. Dressed in a dawky cardigan and trousers that are too big for him, Tyler Todd plays a particularly emasculated George. De Silva, on the other hand, plays a confrontational Martha, commanding the stage with her bright red dress and long monologues. Towards, the end of the play, however, these roles are powerfully reversed; De Silva lies sapped and languidly on the sofa, quietly dismayed, seemingly lost for words.


Mountain View

Mitchell and Webb meet in Cambridge

In contrast, Callaghan and Haworth’s initial interpretations of Nick and Honey are strikingly normal; they strain to make conversation, they laugh nervously. They seemed to me to embody our self-contained, artificial public selves. However, as the play progresses, this façade is slowly worn down; Callaghan’s stony self-assurance melts and Haworth turns out to be weak and flighty. The formerly perfect couple reveals itself to be anything but.

My only criticism of this adaptation is that it is of quite relentless high intensity. The sheer decimal volume of the play, coupled with the heat of Corpus Playroom results in little emotional breathing space or respite for the audience. Perhaps this is more a criticism of the script itself than this adaptation. All in all, however, this is a powerful performance: commanding yet simultaneously subtle and thoughtful. The final notorious plot twist does not disappoint. I thoroughly recommend watching it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is on at the Corpus Playroom until 12 May

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