Michael Portillo - Two's a crowd

Theatre - The savagery of a squabbling couple remains undimmed, writes Michael Portillo

Who's A

Forty-four years after it was writ-ten, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains un-matched in its savagery. During a booze-soaked night, a university professor and his wife, George and Martha, trade wounding insults, use and abuse those around them to increase the pain that they cause, and inflict lasting psychological damage on each other. The revival of this seminal piece demonstrates that nothing has aged it. The lines are as fresh, and the play as shocking and depressing, as when it first appeared on Broadway, or when Burton and Taylor brought it to the screen in 1966.

Albee borrowed his protagonists' names from George and Martha Washington, the first president of the United States and his first lady. The play suggests that the American dream of happy families has descended to this brutal reality. The university is set in the fictitious New England city of New Carthage, hinting that American civilisation, too, is passing into history. The Romans razed Carthage to the ground and afterwards ploughed salt into its fields to ensure that it would remain barren. Martha and George talk of a son, but where is he and why is he a secret? Is Martha really barren, too?

The couple play out their destructive games in front of an apparently innocent young couple, Nick and Honey (David Harbour and Mireille Enos). They call at the house at 2am for a nightcap after a dinner party given by the college president, who is Martha's father. But little is as it seems. Before long, Nick is revealed as shallow, venal and sexually predatory. Honey giggles stupidly but drinks like a fish. Nick married her thinking that she was expecting a baby, but it turned out to be a phantom pregnancy. So she may be both sexually manipulative and infertile, too. Martha tries to increase George's pain by having sex with the handsome Nick, but he turns out to be, as she puts it, a flop.

In this university, at the pinnacle of American culture, Albee unmasks an inferno of drunkenness, lust and greed. Martha is an educated woman with the vocabulary of a street whore. George uses his considerable wit and learning to defend himself against his wife's assaults, but also to hurt and humiliate her and their two guests.

Martha appears to be a vile creature, capable of horrendous cruelty. In the opening minutes of the play she remarks to George: "I swear I would divorce you, if you existed." A lady next to me in the stalls gulped at the line as though she had been shot. But maybe Martha's self-assessment is more accurate: "I'm loud, and I'm vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody's got to, but I'm not a monster." By the play's end, Martha comes close to engaging our sympathy, first because she is very unhappy and second because she feels a sort of love for George that she is unable to confess to him. And because George's final revenge on her is even more sadistic than anything she has been able to dish out to him.

Kathleen Turner magnificently captures the breadth of the role. While she is blousy and repellent, she is also vulnerable without sentimentality. When, at the end, George repeats a witty line that someone sang at the dinner party: "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" she replies: "I am, George, I am." The damage has been so terrible, it is uncertain how the couple will survive.

Turner delivers the deep, gin-sodden voice and the animal yells from off stage as the script demands. She achieves grotesqueness in the attempted seduction of Nick, appearing in a revealing outfit that makes her busty and vampish. (As George comments: "Why Martha, your Sunday chapel dress!")

But excellent though Turner is, it is Bill Irwin as George who steals the show. George is an unambitious and ineffective man whose wife flays him for being a failure. Yet it is clear that he needs bullying, and indeed has married Martha to receive it. Despite his apparent feebleness, he can verbally outmanoeuvre his wife at will. Nick is no competition, either, in that department. George plays the wimp to avoid being punched by Nick. But twice he physically assaults Martha.

Irwin projects George's weakness through a soft, high-pitched voice, a nervous giggle and little jerky movements of the body. But he suggests the depth of the man's malevolence when he hears that Nick has been lured into marriage under false pretences. Irwin's face goes into a spasm, overcome by a succession of wicked grins. He knows he has Nick where he wants him and the demolition can be commenced at a moment of his choosing.

The performances of Irwin and Turner together make this an exceptional theatrical event. The audience, though wrung out by the harrowing drama on stage, staggered to its feet, and rarely was a standing ovation more deserved.

Booking on 0870 890 1101 to 13 May