So much of Edward Albee’s 1962 play about a boozy marital meltdown relies on the explosive chemistry of its central, unhappy couple. Such is the almighty shadow cast by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film that it is hard to banish it altogether but also unfair to compare. Under the direction of Lindsay Posner, the dynamic between Elizabeth McGovern as the domineering, disappointed Martha and Dougray Scott as her jaded university professor husband, George, is refreshingly different.
They perform their parts much more overtly as a game, like huffy children role-playing tantrums. Their living-room showdown begins in this mode as George opens the door to Nick and Honey, the younger couple they have invited round, and Martha orders him to make their drinks. The humour is a little too clownish in these early scenes and the verbal salvoes and hostile laughter feel a little soft.
McGovern makes a brittle Martha, trying to stay breezy in her disdainful put-downs. She plays a comical kind of Mrs Robinson, too, in her flirtations with Nick, perhaps over-egging the humour. When she does eventually flame into bare-teethed anger with George she retains a vulnerable, melancholic quality. Scott brings comic edges to George’s cruelty, his fake singalong tones resembling that of The Simpsons’ dastardly Mr Burns. He gets louder and nastier as he goes along, perhaps tipping into villainy by the end.
Their mutual humiliations don’t always create a dangerous enough animosity but they become more savage and do emerge as a tragically bound, mutually destructive, couple in the final scene, although this drunken night does not seem like it can be forgotten the morning after, as the play demands.
Charles Aitken and Gina Bramhill are excellent as the couple who get caught in the crossfire. Bramhill slips further into impropriety with every glass of brandy; Nick is sufficiently priggish and the power games between him and George are compelling.
The period hairstyles, dresses and suits work well in situating the production in its original social context, with the narrower, nuclear family norms buzzing at the back of these relationships.
Albee’s portrayal is of a marriage not necessarily doomed but built on serious compromise, resentment and illusion. Like the couple in Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs, George and Martha play their own gruelling kind of make-believe that looks like a game but is a deadly serious strategy for survival and coexistence.