Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Brasenose Arts Week)

Tue 8th – Thu 10th May 2012

reviews

Tim Bano

at 00:40 on 9th May 2012

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'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf' is a little gem embedded in the programme of Brasenose College’s Arts Week. In a suburban living room a husband and wife play increasingly twisted mind games on each other and their two guests, all the while knocking back the sauce like it’s apple juice (which it probably is). The cast is small and talented, the production is, quite rightly, not suffocated by high-tech trickery and built-up backdrops or bothered by baggage that lends little to its effect on the audience. It works.

The venue, the Platnauer room halfway up an insignificant staircase on a back quad, is very small, holding only about fifty people who were all squashed up close to the action in the front of the room. The only elements of the set were a couple of chairs and lots of empty bottles. Being in such a small space, the room itself becomes part of the scene – it is like having fifty people in your sitting room, being completely ignored and this adds another, humorous dimension to the production. So the simplicity of the staging means that there is not much to assess, except the acting and the script: one great, the other better.

What really propelled this play and kept hold of the intimate audience was the script. The first act is very funny and so the humour can cover up most moments of weak acting. Pleasingly, however, the acting was not often weak. Ed Barr-Sim as Nick was convincingly dry, lacking in personality and smugly superior. Nick Williams was great, at times; he almost settles into the role of George as depressed and long-suffering, a man who has ceased to be surprised at his wife’s outrageous mind games. But he certainly gives as good as he gets, and Williams sometimes gets a bit shouty at Martha or at the guests. Whereas Nick’s character is intended to be a little bit wooden, Williams as George sometimes echoes this in his acting.

On the whole the women were a lot stronger. Tanya Lacey-Solymar as Honey spurts out some hilarious lines and several times the audience were caught unawares by her comical drunken nonsense. Sometimes it seems as though Barr-Sim and Lacey-Solymar are trying to gauge audience reaction, and this detracts ever so slightly from the immersive qualities of the show, but this is a very minor gripe, and one that is more than compensated for by Amelia Sparling as Martha. She plays a gropey uber-lush and reminds me of one of my tutors when she’s been going at the Campari after a subject dinner. Sparling staggers and screams, flirts and berates expertly: she is an appalling and enthralling inebriate and she and the other three members of the cast slur their lines, slosh their drinks and stumble about the stage not as caricatures, as actors acting drunk often are. They do drunk well.

I can understand their need to drink so much booze: the nightmarish situation is almost tangible and, as the games get more twisted towards the end of the play I began almost to wish that Nick and Honey had left when first said they would, right at the beginning. I have never been able to understand how movie stars can knock back a tumbler of whiskey without so much as a little wince, because whiskey is a bit yucky, and so the ease with which the four on stage swallow measure after measure is a little unconvincing. However, this is only really a complaint if we are to focus on any kind of ‘real’ facet to the play. But the comic script and the theme of illusion, of presenting a false image to your audience are so prevalent that it is not realism, really, that shines: rather, in this sparsely produced play the actors allow the words to resonate, they allow the script to speak for itself and this simplicity is the production’s great strength. Do go and spend an evening with Martha and George: while Nick and Honey may regret it, you certainly will not.

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Ben Llewelyn

at 19:52 on 9th May 2012

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Having played Martha in 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' during my school days (I was at a boys’ school, I’ve not undergone a sex change since then), I was apprehensive about reviewing this production, which forms part of the very well-publicised Brasenose Arts Week, lest I spend the whole performance either thinking I could have played it better, or lamenting the loss of my youth, or both. But more on that later.

The drama is well suited to the small performance space: the atmosphere was intimate and in-your-face even before the action had begun, and the drawn-out darkness before the players’ entrance really felt like we were sitting in someone’s empty house before their arrival, and at the moments of highest tension and drama - which were very well done - I was really struck by the proximity of the conflict and how easily I was drawn into the play’s many, many arguments - though there was a slight awkwardness at half-time when no-one seemed quite sure whether or not it was the interval. Apart from this slightly uncertainty, the direction and production, from Josephine Mitchell and Alexandra Sutton respectively, is very good indeed: especially with a relatively short rehearsal time, they have put together an excellent show.

I should begin with my criticisms of the piece, which fortunately are few: the performance felt slightly less polished than it could have done; it was very conversational, almost to the point of feeling somewhat improvised at points, which worked very well in some parts, but fell slightly short in others. Tanya Lacey-Solymar was slightly off-mark in her portrayal of Honey in the first act, bringing what I felt was slightly too much self-assured humour to a role which asks for a mousey, nervous quality; but I’m glad to say this was much improved by the second half, where she reached moments of really touching fragility and emotion. In general, in fact, most of my (admittedly very minor) qualms were brushed aside by the second half, where the show really came into its own as a tour-de-force of emotion and dramatic tension. In general, though, I must reiterate that I mention these complaints only as real nit-picking - overwhelmed as they absolutely were by the strengths of the piece, which I come to next.

Nick Williams and Amelia Sparling were outstanding as Martha and George, the middle-aged couple who play host to the evening’s drama. In the first act, Sparling has a delicious anger: the moments where she cruelly derides her husband were so wonderfully spitefully done that they really brought a smile to my face; and this is very ably matched by Williams’ weariness, which is extremely well done - we are really struck with the impression that he has been through this ritual a million times before. Sparling expertly commands the stage, and demands audience attention even when she is not speaking, with an expertly-timed sneer or drunken exclamation. When the two argued, they produced a really excellent tension, leaving me with a squirming feeling which I cannot explain better than by comparison to the horrific awkwardness you encounter when you’re at a friend’s house and they have an argument with their parents, and this was the defining feature of the play - the way every argument really drew the audience in. The shift in power from Martha to George between the first and second acts is very well executed, with Williams taking control with a shaking anger which was both convincing and striking. Sparling’s monologues towards the end of the play are its highlight: when she staggered into the room at the start of the third act to deliver her powerful soliloquy, I laughed before being quite literally reduced to tears, and this is testament to her excellent monologue technique.

Whilst their parts were undoubtedly more minor than those of Sparling and Williams, Ed Barr-Sim and Tanya Lacey-Solymar - the latter especially in the second act, as I have mentioned - gave solid performances as Nick and Honey, the younger couple invited to witness Martha and George’s nightly battle. Barr-Sim was beautifully wistful when discussing Honey’s hysterical pregnancy, and Lacey-Solymar’s drunken, babbling Honey comes to be both hilarious and very moving. When the two interact there is a wonderful tenderness which is testament to the talent of both actors. The scenes of physical confrontation involving all four of the actors, too, were shocking and skilfully done.

To return to my initial arrogant scepticism about viewing a 'Who’s Afraid?' that was not my own, I’m both slightly upset, and very pleased, to say that I think my Martha might have been outdone: Amelia Sparling is absolutely superb, as is the majority of this very well-executed production.

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