Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Reviewed by John Grant

It is a challenge to present a play that became internationally famous as an Academy award winning film. However, the standing ovation on opening night for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Ensemble Theatre gives a good indication of how convincingly the four actors and director Iain Sinclair have interpreted this American classic.

The play takes place in the comfortably modest living room of George (Darren Gilshenan) an associate history professor and his wife Martha (Genevieve Lemon) who is also the daughter of the college Dean. Martha has invited newcomers to the college, biology teacher Nick (Brandon McClelland)) and his wife Honey (Claire Lovering) to join them for drinks following an evening staff party. 

From the moment George and Martha stagger through their front door, an already inebriated Martha starts niggling George and the pair happily bicker and keep on drinking as they await their guests.  

Nick and Honey arrive and awkwardly enter the fray as the alcohol continues to flow with George and Martha raucously airing their dirty laundry in front of the somewhat bewildered young couple. It’s not long before they are also embroiled in the night’s entertainment.

Under Sinclair’s direction, this production offers a balanced approach by highlighting the comedy without jeopardising any of the malice and backed up by strong performances from all four actors.

Gilshenan and Lemon’s portrayals of George and Martha are so skilfully delivered that the audience is never quite sure whether the ongoing character assassinations are being fuelled by alcohol or just part of each game they introduce.  They expertly use their hapless young guests as pawns in the point-scoring against one another.

There was speculation about casting these two actors who are perhaps better known for their comedic roles but some of the most outstanding performances are the result of casting against type – and so it is in this production. Both actors have previously shone in dramatic roles - who can ever forget Lemon’s brilliant performance as the tortured Dawn in Jane Campion’s “Sweetie”.  Similarly, the Helpmann award winning Gilshenan’s long list of stage and screen credits reflect his versatility.  

The supporting roles of the overly confident Nick and his eager-to- please wife Honey are expertly handled by McClelland and Lovering. McClelland’s Nick exudes a self assuredness that he can hold his own despite the cat and mouse games of his hosts, which makes his eventual downfall even more painful to observe. Lovering gives terrific performance as the wide eyed young wife who is completely out her depth but maintains her equilibrium by choosing not to see what is so clearly happening before her.

The clever set design by Michael Hankin, ambient lighting by Sian James-Holland and sound by Steve Toulmin all combine to complete this engrossing production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Photos by: Prudence Upton