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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Albee’

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, one of the highlights will be seeing three great actresses, each ten years apart, play Martha – Diana Rigg, Kathleen Turner, and now Imelda Staunton. Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play is a mountain for any actor and its thrilling to watch them reach the summit. I left the theatre emotionally drained; I can’t even imagine what it takes out of them.

It’s 2am on a Sunday morning in September and George & Martha return to their New England home drunk from her ‘daddy’s’ faculty party. He’s the President of the college where George teaches history. A new teacher and his wife, Nick & Honey,  have been invited back and they follow on, arriving shortly after. The drinking continues in earnest as George and Martha fight, snipe, bicker and tear each other apart in front of their guests, playing the most extraordinary psychological games. Their guests get embroiled as the alcohol flows freely. Martha flirts with Peter, and more. Truth and illusion become blurred. Martha eventually breaks the rules, which brings on the endgame.

You’d be forgiven for thinking three hours of people fighting isn’t entertainment, but it’s a black comedy and a theatrical feast, so you’d be wrong. Though it’s impossible not to single out Imelda Staunton’s astonishing tour de force (is there anything this woman can’t do?) her three colleagues are all superb. Conleith Hill’s George makes a more restrained foil for her vitriolic outbursts. Luke Treadaway’s Nick goes from intensely uncomfortable to cool to predatory to angry. I didn’t know anything about Imogen Potts work (based on the programme bio, it may be her stage debut) but I was hugely impressed by her characterisation of Honey. Tom Pye has created a very realistic lived-in home and James Macdonald directs this roller-coaster brilliantly, with his usual forensic detail.

I still think it’s a 20th century classic, and this is a seminal production. You don’t see performances like this every day, every year come to that, and Imelda Staunton’s is a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going. Unmissable.

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When I booked Ecstasy for the night before this, I wasn’t at all conscious of what I was doing. Chalk & cheese.

Like Pinter, Edward Albee has always been a bit of a problem playwright for me. Where Pinter has too much silence, Albee has too many words! His plays usually have smug characters, glib dialogue and a cynical veneer. I find it impossible to empathise with any of them.

By the time I got to the first interval, I was thinking ‘here we go again; I hate these people!’ Is this an American Knot of the Heart? (the Almeida’s last play, which drove me to drink at the interval, after which I couldn’t bring myself to return).

Agnes and Tobias seem to be going through the motions of life in late middle age, with Agnes’ alcoholic spinster sister providing some conflict and confrontation. Over one weekend, their lives are turned upside down when they are invaded by best friends Harry and Edna (who move in because they are afraid of being at home alone!) and daughter Julia, a thirty-something spoilt brat who has given up on her fourth marriage and comes home. These people, particularly Agnes, speak lines with a quick-wittedness and articulacy that is very implausible – could anyone really think and say all of that spontaneously?

Something compelled me to return after that first interval and in the second and third act things did improve as the drama unfolded, but it’s still people you can’t give a shit about spouting implausible bollocks in unbelievable situations….but it does intrigue and hold you and it does makes you think.

It has not one but two national treasures in the cast – Penelope Wilton & Imelda Staunton – and they are both excellent in roles you wouldn’t usually consider them suitable for. Tim Pigott-Smith, Diana Hardcastle and Ian McElhinney also shine as the other oldies, though Lucy Cohu seems a little uncomfortable throwing adult tantrums. Laura Hopkins set is an extraordinary wood-paneled living room that, as a 60’s upper middle class New England home, is the most believable thing about the evening. James Macdonald’s direction is of his usual high standard.

There’s an intellectual pomposity about it which annoyed me, and it didn’t move me one bit, but it did hold and intrigue me for nigh on three hours. Having said that, when compared with last night’s British social realism, I’m afraid there’s no contest – Ecstasy wins hands down because Leigh has humanity where Albee has disdain.

The Almeida’s next-but-one play is yet another Neil LaBute – the natural successor to Albee, in my view. I’ll have to go of course…..

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