Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 25 September, 1996

The first shock in Howard Davies's fine production is the entrance of Diana Rigg on to John Napier's scholastically opulent set. The epitome of theatrical elegance looks as close to frumpy as she can reasonably manage, eating ice cream from the tub in an undistinguished suit and semi-unruly carrot-coloured wig. Although she later emerges in a more eyecatching ensemble including tight zebra-striped pants, the point is well made that Rigg's Martha is a siren not through any inherent allure but because she is determined, even desperate, to be so.

This sensation is mirrored in George and Martha's relationship as a whole: although their constant bickering shocks young newcomers Nick and Honey, the couple show little real spirit to each other except when the battle moves on to fresh ground - the subject of their "blond-eyed, blue-haired" son. David Suchet's George, in particular, is remarkably urbane, on occasion even languid, through most of the combat; this is a man who has seen and experienced everything in more than 20 years of bloody marriage, whose interest lies more in the fecundity of language he uses to propel his darts Martha-wards than in the scrap itself - again, until the shared enormity of sonny boy rears its head again.

As Nick, Lloyd Owen is an arrogant mid-Western prig; Clare Holman continues a line of strong Honeys on the London stage, especially impressive in the final act when she realises with horror her entrapment in George's climactic savage "game", but can only go along with it. The weak point of both younger actors, whether due to their own efforts or Davies' direction, is drunkenness: after what are supposed to have been several hours of drinking, each tips over into giggling incoherence with odd rapidity. Martha and (especially) George, on the other hand, seldom seem affected at all by their constant ingestion of rocket-fuel - they are so habituated to such clashes that hardly any amount of booze can throw them off track. By the same token, when they find themselves on the same side for a moment Suchet and Rigg crackle with an electric complicity.

In the last act, when the truth about George and Martha's offspring is forced out, Rigg is magnificent - compelling throughout her "recitation", shattering in her wailing collapse. Whether one views the play as plain psychodrama, American social allegory or veiled sexual fable, Davies' production rolls confidently over its occasional imperfections to a conclusion which, in Rigg's and Suchet's performances, is as potent a descent to a devastated ground zero as it has ever been. The entirety of the Almeida run is already sold out; the production then deservedly decamps to the Aldwych Theatre.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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