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British actor David Suchet

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | 1996


“I think ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ is one of the greatest plays ever written. I remember when I saw it in 1972, I could only afford the rubbish seats, high up in the heavens, but I loved it. I swore to myself that if I ever got given the chance to play George that I would be the luckiest man alive, so when I was offered the role I was over the moon, but it was also the most frightening experience ever. I really prepared for it though, I took the role apart and learnt it inside out, and Diana Rigg was an inspirational actress.”

— David Suchet for lastminute.com, 2006

 

Dates and places

Opened at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, London on September 11, 1996 (closed on October 26) and then moved to the Aldwych Theatre, London on November 6, 1996 (closed on March 22)

Creative

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Howard Davies
Designer: John Napier
Lighting: Jenny Kagan
Sound: John A Leonard

Cast

David Suchet as George
Diana Rigg as Martha
Lloyd Owen as Nick
Clare Holman as Honey

About the play

George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife, Martha, invite a young couple (Nick and Honey) over for a dinner. George’s and Martha’s permanent squabbling with each other rapidly draws guests into their “games”, which involve savage verbal attacks against one or two of the others. For example, Martha exhausts all the ways to ruffle George and almost betrays him with Nick before his very eyes. In retaliation, George tells Martha that their son died. Martha strangely reacts to the news. She blames George that he had no right to resolve such issues on his own. Nick guesses that in fact the owners of the house don’t have any kids: they just played another “game” and Martha committed the blatant violation of the rules. The plot revolves around these “games”, which are referred to with sarcastically alliterative names: “Humiliate the Host”, “Get the Guests”, “Hump the Hostess” and “Bringing Up Baby”. Conversations, discussions and debates are becoming more and more intense. Shocking revelations and heart-rending accusations turn the party into the psychological nightmare, after which the life of the characters cannot go on as before.

Awards

For his performance as George in this play, David Suchet was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Awards (1997) and won the London Critic’s Circle Theatre Award (1997) as Best Actor. Diana Rigg won the Evening Standard Award (1997) as Best Actress.

image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

About the play

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a play by Edward Albee in three acts, each of which has a subtitle: “Fun and Games”, “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism”. Albee based the characters of Martha and George on his good friends Willard Maas and Marie Menken. They share the names of President George Washington and his wife Martha Washington. The play’s title, which alludes to the English novelist Virginia Woolf, is a parody of the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from Walt Disney’s animated version of “The Three Little Pigs”. In the first few moments of the play, it is revealed that someone sang the song earlier in the evening at a party, although who first sang it (Martha or some other anonymous party guest) remains unclear. Martha repeatedly needles George over whether he found it funny.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” won the Tony Award (1963) and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award (1962–63). It was also selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama by that award’s drama jury. However, the award’s advisory board — the trustees of Columbia University — objected to the play’s then-controversial use of profanity and sexual themes, and overruled the award’s advisory committee, awarding no Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1963.

image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

About the playwright

Edward Franklin Albee III, an American playwright, is known for works such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Lolita” (adapted from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov), “Three Tall Women”, “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” and others. Albee’s plays are considered well-crafted, often unsympathetic examinations of the modern condition. His early works reflect a mastery and Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd that found its peak in works by European playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eug?ne Ionesco, and Jean Genet. Albee has received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama — for “A Delicate Balance” (1967), “Seascape” (1975) and “Three Tall Women” (1994). He received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement (2005); the Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980); the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts (both in 1996).

image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

From the history of production

(from “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Plays in Production)” by Stephen J. Bottoms, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000)

... when the Almeida, another small, London-based art theatre, requested permission to mount a new production in 1996, he stipulated that he would only agree if a West End transfer was guaranteed. With Albee back in fashion following the international success of his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winner “Three Tall Women”, he was in a strong position to make such demands, and a four-month run at the Aldwych Theatre was scheduled to follow the month at the Almeida. The resulting production added further momentum to the Albee renaissance, attracting rave reviews by striking that elusive balance between star-studded cast and genuinely cooperative, ensemble-oriented playing.

The Almeida production was initially suggested by a member of the theatre's board, Dame Diana Rigg, the former TV Avenger who was herself enjoying a renaissance in fortunes following recent lead performances in London productions of “Medea” and “Mother Courage”. The Almeida, which has a policy of programming star actors in plays they have special interest in, took little persuading that this would be Rigg's next great moment. However, the attendant danger of the show becoming an imbalanced star vehicle was counteracted by two other personnel decisions: the casting of David Suchet, another highly respected actor best known for his television work (as the title character in the Agatha Christie spin-off Poirot), and the choice of Howard Davies as director.

[...]

For Davies, then, the imperative in directing the Almeida production was to emphasise and draw out the myriad ways in which power — whether afforded through knowledge, seniority, youthful energy, sexuality or simply force of will — is manipulated by the play's various combatants. The performativity of Albee’s language, the effects of his characters’ ’speech acts’, was arguably made clearer here than in any previous production. Indeed, the self-conscious theatricality of this version was foregrounded to such an extent that Rigg and Suchet took to bowing to each other during the curtain call, before acknowledging the applause of the audience.

[...]

Albee was periodically in attendance at rehearsals for the Almeida production, and declared in the programme note that it was “among the very finest of the hundred or so productions of the play which I have seen” (Albee 1996). Most of the critics concurred, heaping praise on the entire cast, and the public was similarly responsive.

Read more >

Howard Davies, the director, about David Suchet as George:

“Everyone talks about this great movie, and it is a great movie, but Burton [as George] is so unpleasant in it, and so unfunny. I mean, that's a take on the character, but it seemed to me that one of George's weapons is not his masculinity, which is constantly challenged by Martha, but his wit, his intelligence and wit. He's a frustrated man who uses his wit like a lasso, he trips people up, he constantly ties them up with their own hypocrisy, or whatever. That was one of the things I was very keen on, making sure that David used his wit.” — from “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Plays in Production)” by Stephen J. Bottoms, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000

Read more >

image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

What press had to say:

“The same goes for David Suchet, who for me gave the best performance of the night. He played the part of George to perfection, a mild mannered husband who takes all the insults from his wife in his stride, but occasionally losing control.” — Darren Dalglish for londontheatrearchive.co.uk, 9 November 1996

“Rigg and David Suchet (ably supported by Clare Holman and Lloyd Owen as the younger couple caught in the marital maelstrom) do full justice to a literary text which encompasses both philosophical discussion and emotional karate chops. This is a wonderful production for anyone studying the play, but Howard Davies’ direction itself provides lessons in theatrical skills.” — from “Women against convention” // www.tes.co.uk, 15 November 1996

“Whether one views the play as plain psychodrama, American social allegory or veiled sexual fable, Davies’ production rolls confidently over its occasional imperfections to a conclusion which, in Rigg’s and Suchet’s performances, is as potent a descent to a devastated ground zero as it has ever been.” — Ian Shuttleworth for Financial Times, 25 September 1996

“... Rigg and David Suchet are splendid at communicating the depths of George and Martha’s vulnerable dependency upon one another. Even in the thick of playing each other off the guests, you feel that essentially they are alone together and that these psychological maulings are an expression of love. Suchet is magnificent in the final straight of the play, stripping away Martha’s delusions with an expression that manages to look both lethal and angelic in its calmly intense cruel kindness.” — Paul Taylor for The Independent, 27 September 1996

“Diana Rigg, David Suchet, Lloyd Owen and Clare Holman are giving the most electrifying performances currently to be seen.” — Daily Mail, 1996

“David Suchet matches her [Rigg’s] performance every inch of the harrowing way. He delivers cutting insults with lethal precision and can switch from cheery amiability to cold menace in a micro-second.” — Charles Spencer, “Howls of pain from the marital bearpit” for Daily Telelegraph, 28 September 1996

image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

 

 

 

 


“My favourite play that I've ever been in was ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ playing Gorge opposite Diana Rigg. I said to my agent, 'Fight for it, fight, fight, fight for it,' and I was fought for and offered the part.”

David Suchet’s interview, 2007

 


“I did enjoy George in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, that has been my favourite really to do in the theatre. […] The actor’s ego will always go top where one’s successful.”

— David Suchet in “David makes switch from hero to villain”, 1998

 

 

 

 

Review:
Howls of pain from the marital bearpit
— Charles Spencer // Daily Telelegraph, 1996

 

Review:
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
— Paul Taylor // The Independent, 1996

 

 

 

 


“This is a better role than the one in ‘Oleanna’, because it has far more dimensions,” he says. “There are so many layers to George — intellect, humour, wit, disillusionment, sarcasm, rage, pain, need. He’s beautifully written and drawn very clearly. The challenge is to bring it off the page into me.” Although he is familiar with the ways of academe, having spent a year as Visiting Professor of Theatre at the University of Nebraska, he reckons that this may prove his trickiest role yet.”

— from “Who knows the real David Suchet?” // The Telegraph, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book:
From the history of production
— from “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Plays in Production)” by Stephen J. Bottoms, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000

 

Book:
About David Suchet as George
— from “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Plays in Production)” by Stephen J. Bottoms, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information about Albee's play and Davies's production read books:

The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee
by Stephen J. Bottoms, 2005

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Plays in Production)
by Stephen J. Bottoms, 2000

 

 

 

 

Review:
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
— Ian Shuttleworth // Financial Times, 1996

 

Review:
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
— Darren Dalglish // londontheatrearchive.co.uk, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

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