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  • Writer's pictureViolet Mackintosh

German Theatre: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Wer hat Angst vor Virginia Woolf?

Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg

Director : Karin Beier

Writer: Edward Albee

Starring: Josefine Israel,  Matti Krause, Maria Schrader, Devid Striesow

The Violet Curtain does claim to be a London based blog but considering I’m based in Germany at the moment it seems appropriate to review some German Theatre.

Last Saturday evening I went to see a production of ‘Wer Hat Angst vor Virginia Woolf?’ (Some of you may be familiar with the English version: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’) Writing a review in English about a show in German is an especially interesting exercise for me because I am forced to take note of  the overall production rather than focusing in on the nuances of the language. This is a brutal play about two couples faced with the breakdown of marriage.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? chronicles a long night’s journey into dawn with George and Martha, arguably the most singularly vicious married couple in the history of the American theatre. In the first act (“Fun and Games”), they careen home at two o'clock in the morning, drunk from a late-night faculty party. Martha reminds her incredulous husband that she’s invited guests over, and soon they arrive: the new biology professor Nick and his wife Honey. The older couple tease and torment each other, until their attacks become so personal and cutting that Honey gets sick and  leaves, and the party lurches into a temporary lull.

In the second act (“Walpurgisnacht”), George coaxes an intoxicated Nick into revealing some incriminating details: he only married Honey because she was rich and apparently pregnant. (It turned out to be a hysterical pregnancy, and the couple never had any children.) George tells the story of a troubled teenager: a boy who accidentally killed his own mother with a shotgun and, later, his own father in a car accident. Martha and Honey return, and soon Nick and Martha are slow dancing together, to the dismay of their respective spouses. Martha mocks the semi-autobiographical novel George once wrote, a novel about a teenager who accidentally killed his parents. In retaliation, George invents a new game, “Get The Guests,” in which he reveals that Honey once had a hysterical pregnancy. Once again, Honey leaves the room to throw up.

The third act (“The Exorcism”) opens shortly after Nick and Martha have attempted to have sex. (Nick’s drunken state has apparently prevented him from consummating the relationship.) George arrives and demands they play one final game, “Bringing Up Baby”. He forces Martha to recount details about their son before revealing that he’s just received a telegram that their son is dead. Finally, the truth comes out: they never had a son, but for years they’ve privately pretended to have one. Nick and Honey leave George and Martha. It is a little before dawn, and George quietly sings, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “I . . . am . . . George,” Martha replies, haltingly.


Note: There has been much speculation about why Edward Albee chose this unusual title. The story goes that Albee was initially attracted to the title:  Who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Woolf?’ the nursery rhyme about three pigs terrified of a wolf who threatens to blow their house down. This would represent the external forces threatening to tear apart the life which Martha and George have built for themselves. However, in order to use this as a title for his play, Albee would have had to battle the copyright giants of The Walt Disney Company  and so instead he opted for the more intellectual version: ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

This was a remarkably simple production directed by Karin Beier. A huge empty space, a tree, four people and about thirty bottles of brandy.

The stage was itself huge and only a tiny section was used by the actors. The inaccessible void gave the impression that the couples were imprisoned by their problems and isolated by nothingness. There was no furniture or decoration – just humans and alcohol. Although a risky decision, the exposure of the actors paid off, giving a terrifying sense that none of Martha and George’s possessions mattered now. The alcohol was centre stage, emphasising that this poison was the only thing standing between the couples and chaos. As the night goes on, the spotless stage becomes a carnage of smashed glasses. We are witness to their drunken states and eventual sobering as the morning light gradually illuminates the helpless scene. The subtle lightning effects were laudable and very effective. By the end of the evening each of the four has humiliated or exposed themselves in an undesirable way and the embarrassment of the night is illuminated by dawn.

There was no escape for the actors in such a vulnerable environment (not even to go to the bathroom, which they presumably needed because of the vast amounts of apple juice (I assume it was apple juice or some other non-alcoholic drink posing as brandy) being consumed. All four members of the cast held their own in this piece, each melding a relationship with each other's character. The beauty of this play is that we witness every combination of the couples together and watch how the relationships begin to crack at the surface and then crumble. Maria Schrader was fantastic as Martha, holding the stage alone without any text, no easy feat. Side note: I was very excited to see her because she stars in my favourite German series, ‘Deutschland 83’ (part of the Channel 4 foreign language series with English subtitles), well worth a watch if you are interested in the Cold War, and even if you’re not.

Although a straight play, there was some notable movement in this production. The couples dance, but with the wrong other half (Nick with Martha, George with Honey) and this comes at the climax of the night. It is downhill after this physical manifestation of pent-up  anger, sexual tension and jealousy. I will never forget Honey’s disjointed classical music dancing at 4am, complete with sunglasses.

If I could fault the production in any way it would be on account of  its length: two hours and a fair bit more including the applause). Just a side note - Alert about applause in German theatre: it goes on for a long time. In Germany it can seem as if they applaud for about as long as the play lasted (sort of). The actors will appear in every combination possible: individually, pairs, groups and then with people you didn’t even know were in the cast. The extended applause is enough to make anyone restless, let alone the Brits (who are incapable of showing open appreciation for anything longer than 5.4 seconds) In a way it makes sense for actors to receive far more applause than what we deem normal at the theatre in Britain, but it is something to be aware of here.

There was also no interval even though this play was written to contain one, and after ninety minutes I could sense the restlessness of the audience. There was a lull towards the end, and I probably could have cut 15 – 20 minutes out. It was simply too long not to look at my watch. (Stay tuned for an up-coming blog post: ‘No Break - Where did the interval go? And should we miss it?’ For full thoughts on this topic)

Having said that, it was a highly engaging, if somewhat depressing, outlook on matrimony and if you find yourself in Hamburg in the near future it is well worth a watch. If Germany isn’t on the list then, as a theatre fan, do make sure you see this play at some point, or watch the film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.


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