Dirty secrets and true selves are revealed during a late-night gathering that becomes increasingly brutal. Timothy Ramsden reports
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By Edward Albee London Apollo Theatre until May 13 Tel: tickets, 0870 890 1101
If marriages are made in heaven, the ones in Edward Albee's most famous play are lived out in hell. History teacher George is married to the university boss's daughter, Martha. She takes out on him her anger and disappointment at his failure to be an academic star, as well as her own alcoholic self-disgust. Through the early hours charted in the play, George is the only sober character - as director Anthony Page points out, he has only one drink throughout.
In the verbal attacks running through the play, George, an intelligent man, stabs deftly with verbal rapiers. Martha is ferocious, but less deft as her words bludgeon like a club. Yet behind the destructive creature memorably created by actress Uta Hagen at the play's premi re in 1962, lies a woman who is terribly disappointed - with George and with herself.
The young visitors, biology teacher Nick and his wife, called Honey (not her name), are far from an ideal couple. From their entrance, Honey is drunk and socially inept. "Their marriage is incredibly bad, based on his opportunism and her emotional blackmailing," says Page.
In contrast, "George and Martha have a real marriage - they depend on each other, they do love each other. Though they do not know if the marriage will survive, George is making efforts to get it to survive."
Then there is their "child" which, according to Albee, was something started 21 years ago as an excuse for leaving parties - to relieve the baby-sitter. As the non-existent child "grew", it became a source of quarrels between them, but also something vital for Martha. George, the ironic realist, is always trying to make her look at things realistically, but "Martha is a romantic - the child is the one thing that lifts her above the failure and mess of her marriage."
And she is the stronger personality of these two intelligent people; George was attracted by her gregariousness.
Although she has brought young men back to the house before, Page believes this is the first time she has taken one to bed with her. And, in the last act, talking to Nick about George, when she says he is the only man ever to satisfy her, she is including sexual satisfaction.
Albee has made some minor rewrites for the revival. George's book is no longer so evidently autobiographical. It is the fact that he is not allowed to publish it while working at the university that crushed him, so he threw it on the fire.
In George's debate with Nick on chromosomes and the disappearance of diversity and culture in a bland new world, Page finds food for thought about the globalised world and the America of George W Bush. Prophetic, then: not bad for a play that took its title from a piece of graffiti in a bar in Greenwich Village.