Above – Kat Stewart. Cover – David Whiteley and Kat Stewart. Photos – Eugene Hyland.

We’re all busy. Rushing from meeting to meeting, overloading our senses with so many screens that we can’t even relax without at least two devices delivering us content at any time. So, when I saw the three-plus hour running time of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I balked at the idea of a play that required two intervals, what on earth could anyone have to say for that long?

As it turns out, a lot.

In a first for Red Stitch, the production united the Melbourne based independent theatre company with GWB Entertainment and Andrew Henry Presents and moved them from their iconic 80-seat St Kilda theatre to the 1000-seat Comedy Theatre. After selling-out the season before they even opened in 2023, the need for a larger space was imperative.

Edward Albee’s 1962 Tony Award-winning play dissects the marriage of Martha and George in excruciating detail. Played by real-life couple Kat Stewart and David Whiteley, the crushing barbs come thick and fast between these two from the moment they appear in in the box seats above.

A critique of middle-class, middle-age America in the 1960s, Albee’s lightning paced script rips apart any pretence of respectability in the suburbs through the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Martha and George. As these two tear each other to shreds, it’s not without a sincere sense of respect for each other. They fight this hard because they can, it’s a game to see who can cut the deepest, always teetering on complete annihilation.

Martha and George are joined by a younger couple Nick (Harvey Zielinski) and Honey (Emily Goddard) who at two o’clock in the morning really should have known better. As the newer, shinier representation of the “ideal” American couple, they are a perfect canvas for all of George and Martha’s bitter resentment.

Directed by Helpmann Award-winner Sarah Goodes, Albee’s play moves from reality to absurdity in seconds. Playing with the idea of truth versus illusion, there are times you feel you are trapped in a fever-dream as the couples drink themselves into oblivion from a never-ending supply of alcohol.

Goddard’s Honey is a delightful scene stealer, her physical comedy and incredible facial expressions only matched by her wild and wonderful dance routine. Zielinski as the new professor in town is a character you love to hate, his smug sense of self the product of youth and ignorance. Both Goddard and Zielinski hold their own against their older counterparts, rising to the challenge of the more experienced actors, who could easily run away with the script, such is their electric connection.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that even though Martha and George spend the entire time trying to destroy each other, the audience is still on their side. We’re still hoping it will all be okay and that a happily ever after is possible. Martha and George are still fighting, they still love each other. As long as they are playing the game they’re still connected.  

The masterful script is expertly executed by Stewart and Whiteley, and neither falter for a moment, adapting with unruly set pieces in this endurance-testing play. The depth of the characters and the commitment of the actors who portray them is next-level truth-telling.

In what must be an intimidating character to take on (Uta Hagen debuted the role in 1962 and it was later made famous by Elizabeth Taylor), Stewart smashes it out of the park with her pitch perfect rendition, equal parts comically over-the-top and truly villainous.

Over three hours, games are played, secrets are revealed, and the illusion of the nuclear family is destroyed. A little bit of social commentary, a little bit tragic and a whole lot of fun in between, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? challenges pre-conceived notions of love and marriage with absurdity and volatile conviction.

Event details

Red Stitch presents
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee

Director Sarah Goodes

Venue: Comedy Theatre | 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 29 June – 21 July 2024
Tickets: $149 – $70
Bookings: virginiawoolf.com.au

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