Edward Albee, American playwright and master of the bleak, black domestic drama, would have won four Pulitzers, matching the record set by Eugene O’Neill, had the judges not decided that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his searing epic of marital discord, was too vulgar. It was 1963, and the play’s depiction of a disintegrating academic marriage was deemed too downbeat; abrasively candid, it failed to portray a suitably wholesome, American way of life.
Albee’s rejection of respectability might have incensed the jurors, but it set him in good stead. Today, the play is firmly established as a classic. A study in deception and frustration and hatred and impotence, its characters are trapped in their own illusory worlds. For Conleth Hill, who stars in the West End’s latest production of the play alongside Imelda Staunton, its themes chime neatly with the current zeitgeist. In fact, a revival could not have been more timely. “Regarding truth and illusion: it’s a very interesting time,” he says. “Just when President Trump’s spokesperson has talked about alternate facts.”
Set on a university campus, George and Martha—pointedly named after the Washingtons—entertain a younger couple, hosting a polite dinner that transitions into drink-sodden evening of savage humiliation, animated by a sharp, barbed dialogue.
“It sells the politics of the small P, and how idealism is thrown out of the window to play the game of politics,” explains Hill.
Hailing from Northern Ireland, Hill is best-known as Lord Varys, scheming eunuch and and spymaster to the King of the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones. Before that, however, he carved out a distinguished career on the stage, winning an Olivier Award in 2001 for Stones in their Pockets, a grim, gusty play that follows a Hollywood film crew as they descend upon the bucolic Kerry countryside, and required Hill to move, in a deft display of virtuosity, through an enormous array of characters.
It is this steadfast emphasis on craft that colours his approach to Virginia Woolf. Plenty of actors would balk in the face of script that is so complex, especially when it was famously performed by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Hill, however, is more pragmatic than that. “No, no, if you think like that you would never leave the house. Or you wouldn’t play anything that anyone has played before.”
So what did he find challenging? “Learning the bloody lines to be honest. I mean, it’s huge. It’s the busiest part I’ve ever played in my life, in terms of lines, speeches, even the length of the play itself.” His solution was entirely logical. “Read. Repeat. Read. Repeat. Read.”
The repetition of lines eventually seeped into the rest of his life. “It’s very hard to turn them off,” he says. “I will have a random thought and then I will find myself repeating that thought as if that were a line. I go:
‘I will give my sister a call tomorrow.’
‘I will give my sister a call.’”
By now, Hill is so familiar with the lines that they are etched into his subconscious. Even so, he points out, they have not lost their power. One line stands out each time he says it: “Truth and illusion, who could tell the difference?”
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Credits: Charlie Gray