IF words truly can be weapons then verbal exocets are exchanged in Edward Albee’s often raw but brutally amusing wade into two damaged marriages.
It is the early ‘60s when we spend a night in the home of middle-aged, life-weary academic George and his wife Martha. Squiffy after a faculty function, they’ve unwisely invited biology campus newcomer Nick and his slightly neurotic wife Honey for late drinks.
As the hours pass Martha matches her passion for gin with vocalising disappointment in her life choices, which include her unambitious hubby. Playful swipes swiftly evolve into a vicious inquest which swallows their young visitors, initially as witnesses but ultimately participants as their own marital veneer peels under the haze of brandy and bourbon.
George and Martha trade terrible insults that leave you wincing and laughing as they expose the withered limbs of their tired union, the former declaring the latter’s “ugly talents” and “hideous gifts”.
Wading through the “sewer of this marriage” they prod and pick at the warts and lesions of their volatile, sour but somehow elastic partnership with intuitive spite, words like acid-laced scalpels, barbs as pugil sticks teasing and taking lumps as they round on each other shark-like in a lounge given the illusion of a boxing ring under Charles Balfour’s lighting and Erica Whyman’s taut direction.
Jasper Britton is compelling as the beige but deliciously erratic George, as worthy an opponent as he is punch bag to Sian Thomas’ towering, “yowling” Martha, unflinchingly bitter daughter of the university president and whose dented hopes extend to seeing hubby angry.
John Hopkins (Nick) simmers superbly as the clean-cut, sporty chap Martha sets her sozzled sexual sights on as his own issues surface and buckle. Lorna Beckett gives the prim and giggly Honey almost a Lisa Simpson quality as she cowers, revels then despairs as their gladiatorial hosts “get pretty bouncy” with cruel games designed to provoke and wound.
On one hand Woolf is of its time, filtering the bruised aspirations of post-war America through a suburban marriage where frailties have become fissures. On the other, anyone watching this acidic yet hilarious emotional car crash cannot help but inspect their own relationship for cracks and illusion.
The domestic blitz continues until April 7.
By David Dunn