The late Edward Albee is in vogue in the UK right now.
Ian Rickson’s production of the US playwright’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? starring Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo is entertaining audiences at The Theatre Royal Haymarket and just around the corner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, director James Macdonald matches an electric Imelda Staunton with Conleth Hill. Both productions are fine examples of world-class British Theatre and the first productions of his works since Albee’s death last September.
In 1962, Albee’s breakthrough play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered at the Billy Rose Theatre on Broadway, garnering awards and inspiring the classic 1966 film. Over the next twenty years his ability to work was tested by battles with drink, yet he still managed to create such seminal pieces of American theatre as A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women. Flash forward to 2002 and The Goat premiered at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway; winning the 2002 Tony Award for Best Play, the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Boom!
As a gay man living through the majority of the twentieth century, Albee was no stranger to living outside what many deemed conventional, and his work challenges how far our apparently open-minded society has actually come. His masterpiece of marital disharmony, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, probes brutally beneath the surface of middle-class life, while The Goat is a black comedy of manners that invokes the spirit of Greek tragedy. When Albee first published The Goat, he added the subtitle, ‘Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy’. No doubt the fact that the word ‘tragedy’ in Ancient Greek (tragoidia) literally means ‘goat song’, made him chuckle. Albee took inspiration from the classical past and reinvented it for our messy times.
However, the shift in Albee’s god-like status didn’t happen overnight. Most playwrights stay in one lane, the critics didn’t like everything he wrote (a couple of plays flopped on Broadway) but over the course of a five-decade career in which he produced over thirty plays, he managed to sustain “a towering presence in American theatre” and stood out amongst his contemporaries, for cracking the veneer of tolerance and examining what is repressed in our sterile, neat lives. Albee dissected the theatrical milieu with an intensity that puts clear blue water between himself and his contemporaries.
There seems to be simultaneously more and less to Albee than meets the eye. These plays demonstrate that he was a master craftsman and knew how to establish apparent complicity between his characters before shattering it, fully earning the big moments of explosion and revelation that make you as an audience member feel enjoyably thumped in the face.
Always a theatrical experimenter, Albee described his creative method in revealing terms – “Your source material is the people you know, but every character is an extension of the author’s own personality.” With America drowning in alternative facts, now seems the perfect time to take another look at Albee’s enduring works about the risk of existing in a world of distorted reality. He remains one of America’s finest and most curious dramatists.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 27 May. Box office: 0844 871 7622
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, is at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, until 24 June. Box office: 020-7930 8800.
Image: Johann Persson