SOME people go through life looking everything up online first – menus before they visit a restaurant, the story of a play before going to the theatre. Others skip in blithely, with little or no prior knowledge of what they are in for. I tend to flip flop between the two but in the case of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? which is on at Pieter Toerien’s Theatre On the Bay in Camps Bay until October 8, I skimmed the barest of details.
It’s four people who get drunk and “things happen” was what I had, and at the last minute, that it would be about three hours long. When the curtains swished open and Alan Committie and Robyn Scott came on stage, speaking their opening lines, I thought “Oh! It’s a comedy! All right then.” And it most certainly is. Until it isn’t. Oh god, it isn’t.
Alan and Robyn are George and Martha, and it’s 2am. They’ve just returned home from a party, and are now expecting guests – a younger couple, Nick and Honey – which is already enough to drive one to anxiety, at that time of the morning. There is indeed a great deal of drinking, and it gets progressively messier and messier, and eventually downright awful. It’s been said nothing good happens after 2am, and this gives truth to that statement.
A play in three acts (which is a long time to sit but at no point do you fidget; any unease is purely emotional as you become absorbed by the drama unfolding before you), this production is directed by Sylvaine Strike and she does a mind-blowingly good job of it. While George and Martha dominate in the beginning, you can’t take your eyes off Nick (Sanda Shandu) and Honey (Berenice Barbier, in her professional debut, oh my word!) because their discomfort and reactions to their hosts is writ large upon their faces and in their nervous mannerisms.
I don’t want to tell you what happens because if you’ve not seen the play before, I’d like you to experience it for the first time as I did, because that can only happen once. For those who have seen it before, know you are in for a theatrical delight. There’s a bit of background here, and the lovely Alan Committie shared some behind the scenes stories with me.
“Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is a production I’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of times both locally and also on the West End and Broadway – Kathleen Turner in the early 2000s, and about four years ago, Imelda Staunton. Both of them were brilliant in very different ways,” he said.
“But the genesis for this particular show came from reading about a 1981 production that was performed by Mike Nichols, who was the man who directed the 1966 film with Elizabeth Taylor. He was a very famous Broadway and Hollywood director but he was also a comedian in the ’50s, in a double act with Elaine May, Nichols and May. And in 1981, they played Martha and George in a very different production, certainly different to what it had been in the previous 15 to 18 years, in that they really pushed the comedy aspects of it. They teased out all those comedy bits in the first act and a half until the audience suddenly found themselves not laughing anymore as events became more shocking and unsettling, and emotionally layered.”
That was the starting point for Alan, who has wanted to do the show with Robyn Scott for many years. They’d spoken about it on and off, but in March this year, Sylvaine Strike moved to Cape Town. They’d all been in drama school together, and one day when they were visiting him at his house, he suggested they go for it, pitch it to Pieter Toerien.
“They agreed, and the idea was to let the dark comedy, the absurdism of [Eward] Albee’s text to come to the fore. That was the starting point and I’m really pleased that’s been the result in the first couple of shows, particularly with audiences who don’t know the play.”
Sylvaine is a superb director, said Alan. “She’s garnered such a great reputation for looking at text in a slightly different way. The other thing we focused on was the physicality of these characters. Yes, the text is absolutely brilliant. Yes, the language is very evocative. But there’s also a physical relationship that exists between these four characters and Syl has been very good in focusing us in on that and allowing us to play with that a little bit.”
Alan is the producer too, through his company Gloucester Productions, and he was adamant from the beginning that it shouldn’t be Martha’s show alone. “Obviously Robyn Scott is a dynamically and superb actress who has done this part so well, but it really is an ensemble piece,” he said. “You don’t want a production where the two younger guests kind of disappear because they are blown away by Martha and George. I think it’s got to be a strong foursome because that will hold your attention for what is a very lengthy script.”
It’s a lot of words, and a lot of feelings going on up there. “The emotional requirement, or demands, of a production like this are obviously enormous,” said Alan. “Possibly more for Martha as she is literally broken down by George at the end. But the dynamics between all four characters are such that they are constantly changing status. They’re either in a position of power or being battered and bruised by others during the course of the evening. I think it’s that rollercoaster that becomes really interesting and quite demanding.
“It was tough in rehearsals but as an actor I think your task is to visit those dark places, those shadowy places, those moments of extreme emotion or action of extreme intention. So you visit them. You might have to search for moments in your life where you can equate or find inspiration to get to those places.
“But our task as actors is to find them technically, because in a run you’re not going to be able to visit that place every night. I believe our task is to present that so the audience feels it but we don’t necessarily have to every night. Sylvaine talks about the notion of walking next to the character, and not being subsumed by the character – obviously feeling and emoting and understanding and presenting, but having a slight distance as well so you have control as a performer about what you’re putting out there.”
Not only is the material exceptional, but this gives us ordinary audience members and fans an insight into the true craft of acting. It’s been unbelievably interesting, a real adventure, and an absolute privilege, said Alan. Same here, Alan. Same here.
- The production carries a suggested age appropriate restriction of no under-13s.
- The show is designed by Wolf Britz (Fleur du Cap Best Lighting Design for Valsrivier).
- Ticket prices: rows A, K and CC R180, rows B – J and AA – BB R250
- Special subscriber price: R125
- Moira Lister & Bill Flynn Boxes (sold in groups of 4): R250 per seat
- Early Bird special or other discounted rates: R180
- Tickets are available through Computicket or by calling the Theatre On The Bay box office 021 438 3300
PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kramer