16 March 2017
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Harold Pinter Theatre, London; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Old Vic, London
Plays sometimes make such an impact that even non-theatregoers will know the title. The 1960s threw up two – Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – new productions of which opened within 48 hours of each other last week.
Beyond the plays’ similar vintage, the pairing is also neat because critical views of both plays have matured. The Stoppard was initially considered a concoction of literary and philosophical jokes arising from placing centre stage two insignificant courtiers from Hamlet; the Albee was thought to be a savage comedy of marital dysfunction and alcoholism among academics. It is now clear that the dramatists used these situations to explore the strategies that humans employ to get through life under the shadow of death.
An emotionally gruelling three-hour tragedy is not an obvious West End hot ticket, but James Macdonald’s revival has become so because Martha, trapped in a combative marriage with a failed history teacher, is played by Imelda Staunton, the supreme stage actress of the moment after her performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy.
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