AltHOUGH Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may have achieved classic status as one of the great American plays of the 20th century, putting on a production at the Crucible Theatre required negotiations with the writer.
Edward Albee is arguably one of the three greatest post-war American playwrights but, unlike Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, he is still very much alive and likes to maintain control of his work.
He insists on retaining approval for all productions and thus director Erica Whyman was required to submit details of casting and design before he would give the green light to the production.
Premiered on Broadway in 1962, it concerns George and Martha, a university professor and his wife who invite a younger couple back to their house for drinks and proceed to verbally abuse and humiliate one another in front of their appalled guests.
Many people know Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from the 1966 movie which provided the perfect vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, known for their off-screen tempestuous relationship.
“I know Edward had some quibbles about the film,” says Whyman. “One of the most important things was that Elizabeth Taylor was much younger than Martha in the play.
“She’s intended as a woman in her early fifties and a big part of the friction is that she is married to a man in the prime of his life while she is over various hills. There is a sense of disappointment in George.
“The other thing that’s different is that the play is much funnier. In the film this darkness overwhelms you sometimes, whereas the play understands that there is an audience present.
“It is consistently funny and a silliness comes through that shows Albee was influenced by some of the contemporary cartoonists. There’s a Goon-like humour.”
Erica Whyman, artistic director of Northern Stage with whom this is a co-production, previously directed Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at the Crucible.
“One thing that’s exciting about the Crucible stage is the sense of the audience in the room. They are very close to the actors,” she says.
“You feel you are spending the night with George and Martha. They have had a lot to drink. It’s around 2am already and follows a crazy evening that they have endured. We don’t want it to be shouty, there’s some sophisticated argument. It’s a play with a lot of variety.”
Northern Stage regularly tours from its base at the Newcastle Playhouse to Sheffield and it was when Whyman brought Oh What a Lovely War! last year that she and her Sheffield Theatres counterpart, Daniel Evans, mooted the idea of a co-production.
“Northern Stage has many things in common with Sheffield Theatres including recent refurbishment to the theatres,” says Whyman.
“When I took over in 2005 the company had a reputation for bold adaptations of modern novels such as Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. I decided on extending that to a fresh take on modern stage classics.
“I felt that a young audience that might cross over from those adaptations might not know those plays.
“So we have done A Doll’s House, Our Friends in the North and O What a Lovely War!
“They all wear politics on their sleeves but are proper human dramas which is important to both Sheffield and us.”
The design for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is by Soutra Gilmour, with whom Whyman worked on The Birthday Party. “This is a bit more conceptual,” says the director. “These people do bizarre things but must seem very real.”
Judging by the poster we can expect a Mad Men-style look.
“It’s that period where the sexual revolution hasn’t happened and people are living conventional lives, especially Martha,” observes Whyman.
“That clash of old Fifties values and the dawn of something new.”
Nothing illustrates that more than the fact that the play was poised to take the 1963 drama Pulitzer but the powers that be objected to some of its language and sexual references and overruled its nomination.
“One of the things that drew me to the play is that it feels quite timely,” says Whyman. “There’s a reason we are obsessed with the Sixties and are always looking back to that time because it seemed to be about what matters in life.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens at the Crucible next Wednesday and runs until April 7 and transfers to the Newcastle Playhouse from April 12-30.