Talking Movies

May 30, 2016

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Director David Grindley and actor Denis Conway follow their celebrated collaboration on The Gigli Concert last year with another revival of an intense chamber piece.

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George (Denis Conway) is a disappointed history professor whose career has been hindered more than helped by his wife Martha (Fiona Bell) being the daughter of the college president. When they arrive back, slightly drunk, from a mixer for new faculty members he is horrified to learn she has invited back a younger couple to their house for yet more drinking. When the couple arrive, biology professor Nick (Mark Huberman) and his slim-hipped wife Honey (Sophie Robinson), George and Martha soon get roaring drunk and verbally flay each other, to the bemusement of Nick and Honey, before Martha crosses a line and George reacts with violence that escalates from flamboyantly physical to cruelly psychological. And once the mind-games begin in earnest Nick and Honey are dragged down too as the secrets and lies of their marriage are brought to light.

Grindley and designer Jonathan Fensom wall in a substantial part of the Gate’s playing space to shrink down proceedings into one claustrophobic living room. An arena cluttered with the detritus of academic life, which nobody can escape until the mind games have reached a conclusion, it is decorated in an unlikely pervasive red as if to hint at Albee’s inheritance from Strindberg’s pioneering psychodramas. Conway bounces about this tight space in a masterly agile performance. George effortlessly swings from slothful self-pity to sprightly spitefulness via notes of camp and anger, and almost seems to be the conductor of this concerto of callousness. Bell, however, gives the standout performance. Her slovenly Martha is a masterpiece in drunken physicality, with her thwarted ambition producing caustic kvetching in a slumming accent, before Bell delivers a tearful and wonderfully affecting monologue in the finale.

Sophie Robinson as the none too bright Honey is a revelation. She failed to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola in the Abbey’s 2014 Twelfth Night, but under Grindley’s direction she is this production’s comedic ace in the hole. Honey’s ability to turn on her husband with sharp rejoinders alternates ecstatically with total obliviousness (such as not realising that George is narrating her own life story to her) and non sequiturs (such as egging on a potential fight between George and Nick with “Violence! Violence!”). Mark Huberman has the least rewarding role as Nick, but he hits the right note as the stolid scientist with just a touch of the jock in his make-up: pompously standing on his dignity when he’s not trying to hump the hostess. The performances are further testament to Grindley’s skill as an actor’s director.

This is a wonderful production, yet Grindley’s consistent skill in investing static psychodramas with terrific performances can make it hard to discern his overall artistic intent in these plays.

4/5

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 11th of June.

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May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

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“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

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