In a theatre week dominated by the opening of Charlie Sonata at the Lyceum, it’s more than interesting to see Douglas Maxwell’s new play alongside Edward Albee’s great 1962 masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, about two people gradually drinking themselves to death – although in circumstances far more comfortable, if far more psychologically brutal, than Charlie’s.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ****
Running Wild ****
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Confessional ***Oran Mor, Glasgow
Set on a leafy university campus in the eastern United States, Albee’s play – immortalised in the 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – is a massive, rich and relentless three-act drama in which middle-aged couple George and Martha first invite a new young lecturer and his wife into their lair (a lovely house on campus), and then proceed, over three and a half hours, to take them and each other apart in three horrific and brutal mind-games called “humiliate the host”, “get the guests”, and “bringing up baby” – the final, devastating sequence in which we are finally allowed to glimpse the grief and bleakness that binds George and Martha together, even while they tear one another apart with a cruelty that is truly shocking.
Michael Emans’s new Rapture Theatre touring production presents Albee’s drama in full, and with an almost luxurious sense of space and well-crafted detail. Sara Stewart is a gloriously compelling Martha, clever, beautiful and wrecked. Robin Kingsland is her perfect partner as George, outwardly shambling and unattractive, inwardly equipped with an intellectual and emotional steel to match her own. And Paul Albertson and Rose Reynolds bring real depth and complexity to the roles of the young guests, in a production that plays no tricks, but offers a rich feast of world-class drama to those with the strength to share George and Martha’s rage and misery, and their long night’s journey into the bleakest of dawns.
It’s a fine feeling, though, to turn from this masterpiece of middle-aged agony to two coming-of-age shows that end in a spirit of hope. Running Wild, at the King’s in Edinburgh, is a gorgeous, thrilling production – first seen at Chichester Festival Theatre – of a story by Michael Morpurgo inspired by a real-life incident during the terrible Indonesian tsunami of Christmas 2004, when at the height of the horror caused by the giant wave, a beach elephant was seen running for the hills and the jungle, with a terrified child clinging to its back.
In this version, the child is a girl called Lilly – brilliantly played at the performance I saw by India Brown – who is already struggling with major grief after the death of her father in Iraq. On a Christmas trip from England with her Indonesian mother, she finds herself alone in the jungle with the elephant, Oona; and at the start of an adventure where she has to face not only the loss of her parents, but the brutality of those who would destroy the jungle itself, and all the creatures who live in it.
There’s a touch of environmental romanticism about Morpurgo’s story, no doubt. Yet his fundamental point about the essential relationship between humanity and nature is undeniable; and the whole story is so powerfully realised in Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks’s production - with passionate performances from a 15-strong cast, a spectacular set capturing the devastation of the tsunami, wonderful life-sized animal puppets, and loud, thrilling music by Nick Powell – that the show becomes completely irresistible.
David Weir’s Confessional, meanwhile, is a Play, Pie And Pint show par excellence, an Oran Mor debut for an established London-based writer who revisits his Scottish roots in this light-touch comedy about young Kevin, superbly played by Cameron Fulton, who finds himself burdened by a family expectation that he will become a priest – after all, his Uncle Alan is one, and insists on Kevin continuing his altar-boy duties well into his teens.
The story is told with a truly pleasing deftness, through a monologue from Kevin illustrated by brief encounters – moving back and forward through time – with his Mum, his Dad, his Gran and Grandad, and Uncle Alan, all played with terrific flair by Jonathan Watson and Sally Reid; and although there’s little depth here, and a fairly predictable ending, Weir’s combination of witty dramatic structure and excellent one-liners offers a fine piece of lunchtime entertainment, short, brisk, kindly, funny and humane.
*Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is on tour until 3 June