Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? staged in South Africa 2022, is thrillingly illuminating, entertaining, a must-see

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -South Africa 2022 -Gloucester Productions

Director: Sylvaine Strike
Cast: Alan Committie, Robyn Scott, Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier
Design: Wolf Britz
When: Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town [September 20 to October 8 ] and Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino, Gauteng [October 14 to November 6]

Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was first staged in1962. Sixty years later, it is a revelation to see this play, on stage in South Africa 2022. It is an outstandingly brilliant production- breathtaking – performances (Alan Committie, Robyn Scott, Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier) and superb design (Wolf Britz). Sylvaine Strike in the director’s seat has heightened and teased out the absurdity in the drama which makes it utterly watchable.  I have seen two stagings of the play– one in English and one in Afrikaans (English surtitles) which were excellent but which I found exhausting to watch. This production is darkly funny, utterly mad, and gripping. While one is revelling in the madness, there is space for the nuances.  It is packed with issues and makes for a hugely enjoyable piece of theatre.  It is a long play (close to three hours) but the time whizzed by. This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gets #TheCapeRobyn #OhMy and a #ThinkingTheatre rating.  It received a well-deserved standing ovation.

For me, it was like watching a new play. There was so much that I had not registered in my previous viewings. Core to this play is “illusion and reality” and Strike unmasks and strips away illusions to reveal realities in this story with an inspired use of physical comedy (and some clowning). The opening scene is a kicker – I won’t production spoil- with a gleefully crass Martha (Robyn Scott) revelling in the games that she is about to initiate with her husband George (Allan Committie), when their young guests, Nick (Sanda Shandu ) and Honey and (Berenice Barbier) arrive for a 2am boozing party in their living room on a college campus where George and Martha reside.

The house party follows a campus soiree, put on by Martha’s daddy, the Alpha male President of the college. The house guests are newbies on campus.  Nick is 28 and is professor of biology. Honey is 26 and a campus wife – as is Martha. For George (a history professor) and Nick, marriage has been transactional. Both their wives come from money. This is one of the many trigger conversational points in the evening. There is chat around history and biology and musing that one day, we will all be reproduced in test tubes and look like Nick, the biology prof. This is a remarkably prescient Albee, prophesying test tube babies in 1962. George muses: “Race and culture will eventually vanish”. George chides Nick that he sees everything under the microscope but in fact he sees nothing.

The casting of Sanda Shandu  in the role amplifies what Albee was positing in 1962 and imbues it with resonances in 2022 and here in South Africa as we grapple with our illusions and realities and race and class is very much part of our discourse. For George and Martha, the reality of their disappointed lives is lifted by the illusions that they construct. Their marriage has become a destructive co-dependant performance.  Or has it?  Nick and Honey have their own issues, with much being revealed through the great lubricant of society – alcohol.

Albee is excavating a lot in this play – including marriage, nature vs nurture and history, ambition, failure, desire, identity and people behaving badly – to each other and to others. Martha and George are not nice people. One of the images which fascinated me, is the numerous references to pigs. One of the play’s lines might well be directed at the audience: When Nick gets upset by George’s meanness, a sanguine George retorts: “By God, you gotta have a swine to show you where the truffles are.”  Yes, the good stuff is sometimes hard to find. But is George referring to his nature and character, or the keen intelligence and sense of smell of a pig?  In a world gone mad as it is in 2022, what do we need to ferret out truth from the illusionary games that we play to blot out reality? Albee’s play is packed with issues and images. In this production, what he wrote in the 1960s is timeless – here we find ourselves in 2022 – in South Africa, in the global situation of “dashed hopes but good intentions”, as George says.

Alan Committee, Robyn Scott and Sanda Shandu are Fleur du Cap Theatre Award winners and seeing them together on stage is magic as they flesh out their characters in all their delusions and illusions. Newcomer Berenice Barbier is exceptional as Honey – bringing oomph to a protagonist who I recall as being a side-hustle. The comedic timing between the four performers, sizzles as we watch everything being manically up-ended.  But, we laugh and we will be okay, because we must continue to play the game of life. Albee’s 1962 masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, staged in South Africa 2022, is thrillingly illuminating and entertaining – a must-see.

And there is more- power alert postscript

We saw on Saturday September 17, 2022 at Theatre on the Bay, with South Africa being throttled by loadshedding (electricity outages). It must be noted that TOB has a generator and an excellent one. I reckon that a great antidote to loadshedding is to go to see a play at a theatre, equipped with a generator. After the Cape Town season at TOB, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will transfer to Gauteng, to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino [October 14 to November 6] and that theatre also has a generator. For his day job as a comic/stand-up comic (theatre doesn’t pay the bills), one of Alan Committie’s famous lines: “It is a pleasure.” Watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a pleasure. The production of a deeply complex play is entertaining -a pleasure to watch. Theatre on the Bay is a beautiful theatre and an absolute pleasure to be at and it has that excellent generator and the same holds for Montecasino.

The cackle- a bit of a production spoiler – so skip if you don’t want to know

While, we are in post-script mode, mention must be made of the impressive performance of Berenice Barbier as Honey. In the pack of four Fleur du Cap Theatre award winning actors [Alan Committie, Robyn Scott, and Sanda Shandu], Barbier’s Honey had the audiences in stiches, transfixed by her cackle – a nervous titter. It is a chuckle. It is giggle choking on itself. I asked Barbier about the ‘cackle’ that she brings to Honey and she said: “I found that cackle in our three weeks of rehearsals, I based it off a bird my friend has that gets jealous when it’s not getting enough attention. I felt like it was a good choice for Honey.” What kind of bird? “A love bird, I think. He would make this sound that sounded like a forced laugh that could turn into hysterical crying. I played with variations.” The production is packed with yummy stuff – you will see the interplay between Committie and Scott and I must not production spoil, so I will leave it at that. You will see Sanda Shandu’s expressions of being flummoxed and exasperated – again in particular situations – and again- I must not production spoil. Fabulous -all round. I loved the production.

House party: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -South Africa 2022 -staged by Gloucester Productions. Front from left – Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier. Back – Alan Committie and Robyn Scott. Pic: Jesse Kramer.

Nights in booze and mutual insults: The 2022 South African production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -staged by Gloucester Productions. From left- Robyn Scott, lan Committie, Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier.Pic: Jesse Kramer.

✳Pics by Jesse Kramer. Supplied.