Monstrous Martha: Imelda Staunton in Albee’s “Woolf”

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo: Johan Persson.

When last on stage in London, Imelda Staunton was doing a hard-as-nails take on Rose Hovick in Jonathan Kent’s Gypsy revival. Before that, she was fiercely hawking meat pies in Kent’s Sweeney Todd revival. Now, under the direction of James McDonald, she’s taken on another unstoppable dynamo: Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play’s first major production in London (or NYC, for that matter) since the death of Edward Albee. It’s a safe bet the sometimes dour playwright would have given his stamp of approval to Staunton’s portrayal of the classic termagant, now raging at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Staunton’s Martha is a hockey puck careening across the icy space of her seemingly unhappy marriage to George (Conleth Hill), a mediocre history professor. Hers is a Martha to stand up for — and stand up to. On entering designer Tom Pye’s take on a late Victorian campus home, she’s already on the attack, badgering George to recall in which film Bette Davis uttered the famous line “What a dump!” She lets it be known that here’s a woman out to goad her spouse into an inebriated row by any means, including in the wee hours of the morning.

Indeed, though the hour may be wee, Martha — whose father is the president of the college, and who is returning with George from a meet-the-new-faculty drink party — has invited some guests for nightcaps: handsome young history prof Nick (Luke Treadaway), whom Martha believes is a biologist, and Honey (Imogen Poots), his giddy wife.

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There’s not much need to describe in too much detail the high-gear, high-decibel action that occurs by the time that a grey dawn, lit by Charles Balfour, spills through the windows. But after Martha, both compulsive and rampaging, ups the ante on her humiliations of George, she changes into a sexy black outfit — of a sort that Victoria’s Secret might promote for middle-aged women — and campaigns to seduce Nick while Honey repeatedly succumbs to an alcohol-poisoned stomach.

But the crux of the drama concerns the imaginary son that George and Martha have concocted to get through this — and presumably many other — long night’s journeys into day. While insisting on playing “Get the Guest” with Nick and Honey to cruel effect, they continue their own version of “Bringing Up Baby” — though one of the many rules is that they don’t bring up “baby” to anyone but themselves.

Therein lies Albee’s purpose: to harpoon illusion. That imaginary son, now supposedly 21, has been conjured to help Martha and George forge, or maintain, their bond. But they haven’t yet realized how their collusion has exacerbated their conflict. Nick and Honey do not know that they are infringing on this masquerade, but in doing they so they may force Martha and George to confront illusion once and for all.

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It could be said that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a dysfunctional-family play because it’s about a married couple unable to make a family. Put that way, it raises a question about Albee’s motivations for writing it. He often said that the spark for the title was seeing the words scrawled in soap on the mirror of a bar in Greenwich Village. But maybe now, with Albee’s passing, there is an opportunity to rethink the play as a highly explosive exercise rooted in his experience with cold, distant parents. Married men and women battling each other populate many his plays; his late work, The Play About the Baby, much like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is also a play about a baby. A baby, perhaps, devised or made into life by something other than childbirth?

Maybe yes, maybe no or maybe this is psychoanalysis stretching too far. Pointedly autobiographical or not, though, Virginia Woolf? still shocks 55 years after it debuted. In a play where bickering is ratcheted to monumental heights, it would seem that eventually the nattering would become repetitive. Albee was an expert at seeing that never happen. He knew when to modulate: Martha even expresses gratitude for George’s caring before she resumes her magnificent vituperation. Albee also left the play with a single undeniable weakness: Nick and Honey never consider escaping so much frightening raillery.

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Albee is not the only playwright aiming to get away with this: Yazmina Reza, in her God of Carnage, shows the same strains (her play owes plenty to Albee — it even involves errant sons). Maneuver as the playwright might by suggesting that Nick and Honey are too stinko to scram, he tests the patience of the audience longer than what is plausible.

But back to Staunton. Her Martha is monumental but doesn’t outshine her colleagues. Rather, she sets the level at which the other actors emote around her. Hill, for example, is smartly cast. His George can defer to his wife but, whenever chided sufficiently, can meet Martha at her mouthy game and raise her one. When Martha taunts him with her play for Nick, Hill’s sangfroid while doing nothing but reading a book is masterful. How, we wonder, can this George not notice Nick? Treadaway is as handsome both as Martha needs and chooses him to be, and he demonstrates real guts to treat the boss’s daughter in a way that will benefit him. Poots doesn’t make a false move as a young woman who knows she’s out of her depths and must overcome it. Pathetically, she laughs in all the right places. Less so, perhaps, than we .