Penned by American playwright Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a universally beloved drama of broken dreams and marital breakdown whose message resounds as forcefully as it did upon its feted premiere in 1962, before it was immortalised in the 1966 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Said Albee, “People often get it wrong. They think it’s a play about people who hate each other. It’s not. It’s a play about people who love each other.” Directed by veteran Denis Moore, Melbourne’s acclaimed independent Winterfall Theatre present a loyal adaptation of the play, with a talented ensemble cast featuring Chris Connelly, Winterfall co-founder Michele Williams, Jordan Fraser-Trumble and Cassandra Magrath (Wolf Creek / SeaChange) starring as Albee’s two famous couples, George and Martha, and Nick and Honey. Writer Jessi Lewis caught up with Michele Williams, Winterfall Theatre co-founder and cast member, talk about this famed worked ahead of the company staging this ambitious production

Talk to us about the process of gaining the rights to this work.    

My understanding is that Edward Albee personally decides who can obtain the professional rights for this show. Therefore, it took longer than usual for the rights to be obtained. Obviously, he’s a very busy man and I am simply honoured that he elected to offer the rights to our theatre company. The process was fairly detailed, and an understanding of our approach and ideas was requested. I would presume that Winterfall Theatre Company’s past record was also viewed – if not by Mr. Albee himself; then at least by his primary agent in America. I think that having a good track record and a history of great reviews for previous productions might have helped us. 

Why present this work, what draws you to it,

This play is brilliantly written. It’s really as simple as that. It is a masterpiece. When you’re an actor you want to work on the best material. It’s harder in that the demands of the language are enormous. However, it is also very rewarding, because if you do what’s written on the page, it works. I guess it would be the same as a musician wanting to play the music of any great composer. I was also drawn to the themes and the way Edward Albee’s mind works. This material is also extremely funny, which is something I didn’t realise until we put it in front of our first preview audiences. It really is a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. 

Are any themes or concepts found in this work, that you feel are universal or perhaps still “current” in terms of today’s society?

This play is as relevant to today’s society as it was when it was first performed (in 1962). It will  never be “dated” as all the themes that are explored are universal and ever present in humanity. There is what appears to be a criticism of the 1950’s “all American dream” (which was/is not unlike the “all Australian) dream. However, the play goes much deeper than that. Albee could just as easily be asking us to look at all the things we delude ourselves about today, as much as he was asking that of his audience in 1962 (When the play first came out). Then, there was an idea of what constituted a perfect family. That concept might have changed, but the play could just as easily be challenging us about how we present “dreams” today. I think the themes are incredibly relevant to the internet generation. The play is all about truth and illusion and the way in which people engage in denial. Denial is a very powerful tool, and just about everyone engages in it at some time in their lives. Most people have chosen to see what they want to see, promote only what they want others to see – at some point in their lives. Ironically, although George and Martha appear to have a savage marriage, this is also a play about love. In the end, it’s a play about a group of people who love each other enough to rip through all the smoke and mirrors of their various lives. That takes enormous courage – to actually care enough about another person that you’re willing to risk everything to show them what is really going on, as opposed to what they might like you to see. What begins as a superficial night with a middle aged couple and a couple in their late 20’s, turns into a powerful transformation for all four characters. Each of them comes away with a greater sense of the truth of what is really going on in their lives. 

What can we expect from the work, how have you imagined the performance?

One can expect to be challenged and also entertained from the work. I “imagined” the performance by getting a director! I think it’s the director who really “imagines” the performance in theatre. We have a great director, whose name is Denis Moore. He’s very experienced and has directed (and acted) for many years, and for many large, major theatre companies, as well as independent ones like Winterfall Theatre Company. This is not a play that I personally think an inexperienced director could handle, so I sought out someone who is a veteran. I did “imagine” the play in the sense that I (along with Denis) talked about how it ought to be cast, and gave ideas regarding the casting. 

Talk to us about the cast, what have they bought to the development period, and in turn what dynamic do these individuals bring to the performance?

I’d been told since my drama school days that I should play Martha when I became the right age. Of course, back then, (in my 20’s) I thought that I’d never be old enough to play Martha. Well, I knew I would be some day, but it seemed like a very long way off. It’s amazing how time flies; that’s probably another theme that is in the play. It looks at how different generations approach things in their lives. I also wanted to act this role with my fellow actor, Chris Connelly, who is playing husband George. I’ve acted with Chris before and he’s a brilliant actor. He totally transforms into George – a bogged down academic with a sardonic wit. Chris has a long career in theatre, film and TV and is very experienced and really is the glue that bonds us all. In rehearsals, he was the one who always knew how to keep the story going, even when we were all very off-track with our lines! He just knows how to keep going, regardless of what occurs!  

I also love the work of fellow actor, Cassandra Magrath; someone I’ve known since she was ten years old. She is well known through her work TV and film, which includes playing a major character in all the “Sea Change” series, and the lead in the acclaimed Australian film “Wolf Creek”. She brings great comic relief in the role of Honey, who deals with life by gargling brandy. That’s not to say she’s just a light weight character, because she is also quite tragic, and Cassandra has the necessary acting attributes to make this balance work.

Jordan Fraser-Trumble  plays the role of Nick, who is married to Honey. Jordan has done several plays with Red Stitch Theatre, amongst others.  Jordan is great in this role, which also has the demand of balancing a young man (in the character of Nick), who is egotistical and cut-throat on one level, yet incredibly sensitive and kind in other respects.

Not all actors can manage this mix of characteristics in complex, multi-layered characters such as these. However, all of the cast, in my opinion, have this ability. It’s also what makes Albee one of the greats. He understands that most of us are a multifaceted mix of selfishness and selflessness; that there are very few true psychopaths or true saints or sages in the world. These characters are real people with real mixes of loving and self-centred attributes. They are trying to survive as best they can, often comforting each other the way one wounded animal might comfort another wounded animal. That’s the way I see all four characters. They’re all trapped in something they don’t really understand, and somehow manage to assist one another with coming to terms with the truth. 

Do you feel its important to re-stage such classic works, and if so, why?

The answer is really in the question. “Classic” works are always important. What makes something a “classic” is that its themes are timeless. As long as human beings live on this earth, they will always be dealing with truth and illusion. They will always be dealing with how the rest of the world views them, and how they view themselves. They will always be dealing with the fact that they are getting older. They will always be wondering if they’ve met society’s expectations etc… I love new theatre works and believe that there should be a lot more funding for new, Australian plays. At the same time, all new playwrights and actors will never stop learning from the greats, of which Edward Albee is one. I can’t claim to understand what goes on in Edward Albee’s mind, but his capacity for seeing things as they are is extreme, and his ability to execute his perceptions on paper is truly masterful. He’s a wordsmith. What else can I really say?

This is truly a brilliant play, and I think it will be performed over time, as Shakespeare has been performed over time. When a writer is able to truly capture what it is to be human, then I think that every generation is going to be drawn to their work. We’ve done some previews to high school kids (who are studying this play as part of their VCE in literature). These kids are 15-18 years of age and they have completely “got” this play. They’ve been fantastic audiences; responding to all the nuances, and getting a lot of the humour that is inherent in the play. When you do a play that is three hours long, and manage to engage the minds of today’s teenagers, (who are accused of having short attention spans), then you know you’re doing something right. I think Edward Albee understands all ages and stages of life and this play is a real gem for anyone aged 15 and upwards. 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays Blackbox Theatre, Preshil Senior Campus  26 Sackville St, Kew until July 10th, book you tickets here

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