Hong Kong Players to present modern classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Local theatre troupe stages Edward Albee’s brilliant award-winning play about a tempestuous night of mind games, drink and cruelty among American academics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 8:01am

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which opens on February 17 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, was the play that made playwright Edward Albee’s reputation.

First produced on Broadway in 1962, it picked up both the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play the following year, and narrowly missed winning Albee his first Pulitzer Prize.

Now 87, and generally recognised as a grand old man of American letters, Albee has since picked up three Pulitzers, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a classic of modern drama.

The play is an unsettling work, with strong language for the era, and it isn’t difficult to imagine why, after the Pulitzer’s Drama Jury had selected it, the more conservatively minded advisory committee decided to veto the award.

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Divided into three separately titled acts – Fun and Games, Walpurgisnacht, and The Exorcism – the play takes place over the course of a nightmarish evening when a young university professor and his wife’s accept an invitation for drinks from the wife of an older professor at the college.

The hosts, George and Martha, delight in playing cruel games on each other, and on their guests. The evening produces a number of apparent revelations about them, but as it progresses the line between reality and illusion becomes more and more blurred.

It is not an easy work to stage and the Hong Kong Players theatre company has learnt this first hand with its production, which is directed by Jodi Gilchrist and was originally scheduled for last October.

“You can’t put it on if you feel you haven’t had the time to get to grips with it,” says Kath O’Connor who plays Martha.

“Unfortunately the deferment meant that the other two [original cast members] weren’t able to do it. The actress who was going to play Honey in fact has now left Hong Kong, but luckily we got two new great people and the chemistry is really good, so it worked out well in the end.”

Other cast members are Henry Coombs, as George, and Matthew Rawcliffe and Michelle Edwards who play the young couple.

An advantage of the delay was that O’Connor and Coombs had extra time to work on their interpretations of the roles, and Albee’s frequently highly praised dialogue has been very thoroughly rehearsed.

Despite the cast being all British, Gilchrist says they have come to terms well with American accents.

“Within the dialogue there is so much that overlaps. There are tongue twisters, people butting in, interrupting each other … the pace is so fast. You have to really concentrate, and they’ve got it. They really keep it flowing,” she says.

O’Connor says much of the extra time for rehearsal went into examining the characters and their motivations rather than simply running lines – although the script is a formidable test for the actors’ memories.

“I love working with Jodi because she really helps you connect with the characters. We do off-text work as well, improvising scenes that aren’t in the play. It helps you to have a more concrete sense of who you are, thinking about the backstory and where you come from,” she says.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a lengthy play, but Gilchrist decided to keep it moving at a brisker pace than some directors opt for, with one interval rather than two, and less of an emphasis on the long dramatic pauses so strongly associated with Albee.

The play has parallels with two previous productions Gilchrist has directed, Abigail’s Party, and The Graduate, the latter also well known internationally as a film directed by Mike Nichols.

“Both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Abigail’s Party are about strange marriages that don’t really work, and characters leading false lives,” says Gilchrist.

“The layout is also quite similar to Abigail’s Party, with the sofa and two chairs, and [set and lighting designer] Ian Pratley said, ‘We need to do something different,’ so without giving any secrets away, we have. There’s going to be some very effective lighting.”

As for being influenced by Nichols’ version for the screen, she watched the 1966 film in which George and Martha were played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who won a Best Actress Oscar for her role) before deciding to stage the play, but says the cast have not referred to it.

“They held off watching the movie. They created their own versions of the characters, which is what I wanted. If you do see the film it becomes difficult to avoid mimicking that,” she says.

“With any play there is interpretation involved, both from the actor’s perspective and the director’s,” adds O’Connor.

“If you start looking at other people’s interpretations as well then it can muddy the waters. I wanted to go back to the text, and also to do my own research into Albee’s intentions, looking into interviews with him and what he had said about the characters, and also to discuss her vision with Jodi.”

Developing her own version of Martha, she says, has been challenging but worthwhile.

“The character is fascinating. She is so flawed, so strong, so vicious, but also has this vulnerability underlying that, and this disappointment and bitterness,” says O’Connor, who is head of drama at the German Swiss International School.

“The thing about Martha and George is that they are such a dysfunctional crazy couple. The complexity is very challenging to get across from an actress’s point of view. It’s an iconic role – very scary to do but very rewarding at the same time.”

Dark and disturbing though the play often is, both director and leading lady are keen to stress that it is also darkly funny.

“The role of Honey brings the comedy element in,” says Gilchrist. “It is heavy, but she has some lines which can be laughed at. It’s the kind of play in which the audience aren’t always sure whether they are supposed to laugh or not.”

“It is a tragicomedy,” adds O’Connor, who also knows the play from having taught it.

“In any tragedy there must be elements of lightness. It’s a question of how much you want to play those up.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, McAulay Studio of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, February 17 to 20, 8pm. Tickets: HK$280. Inquiries: 2111 5999.