Bulletin to those who follow international news: None of the Playbill On-Line Preview Tour guests were stuck in the power failure that halted the London Underground for two hours Wednesday evening. We were all safely -- if that's what it can be called -- guests of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Aldwych Theatre, which was a short walk from our hotel.
The sleet ended, the streets dried and the sun came out Wednesday morning, just in time for the 23 Playbill guests to stroll through Covent Garden to tour the venerable Theatre Royal Drury Lane, for a backstage tour. The theatre, which housed the original London runs of My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line now witnesses the nightly helicopter landings of Miss Saigon. We got to see dressing rooms, set shops and the colossal century-old hydraulic system that raises and lowers the stage.
After an afternoon of shopping, sightseeing, antiquing, Thames-boating, St. Paul's admiring and rampant photography we gathered for dinner at the Cafe des Jardins in Wellington Street, then moved on to the Aldwych Theatre in the Strand where we saw the revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned raves in the last month when it opened at the Almeida Theatre.
Virginia Woolf is Edward Albee's 1962 drama about a husband and wife at a small Eastern U.S. College, who spend one dreadful night tearing one another apart and laying bare one another's weakest points and deepest secrets -- including the truth about their son, whom they use as a weapon against each other. The production starred Diana Rigg (TV's "The Avengers") and David Suchet (PBS' Hercule Poirot).
Virginia Woolf ran well over three hours, so by time we were strolling beneath the promenade of white holiday lights strung across Earlham Street, the pubs were already closing. Instead we gathered in the Mountbatten Hotel's lounge to peel away the many layers of the drama we'd just seen. A straw poll of the group showed 15 gave thumbs-up to the production, two gave thumbs-down and three said they had mixed feelings (with three having seen another show, or not voting). Here are selections from their more detailed opinions:
George Allgair of New Jersey:
I don't think I'll see acting as magnificently set as that [again] in my life. -- Event if I wasn't sure about [whether] the child [was real or not]. I got the "message" late. It reminded me of An Inspector Calls: It's not a mystery of murder or a mystery of crime; it's a mystery of events, a mystery of the mind.
Susan Coakley of New Jersey:
Seeing Virginia Woolf was like a 4x5 canvas with a white background and white lines -- the beauty was in the eyes of the beholder. I was astonished that a play over 30 years old, in three acts, running over three hours could still be a sell-out with an audience rapt with attention, watching other people's destruction of one another. Why do people experience that?
Peggy Griffen of New Jersey:
The acting was good. It was intense. I felt overwhelmed at the tragedy of that relationship, that they'd stay in the relationship for so long. I think they really loved each other on a certain level. They're typical of a lot of relationships where you can't tell each other how much you love each other.
David Taylor of New Jersey:
I loved it. I thought it was great -- much better than the film. I always thought Liz Taylor was much too young. The [stage] actors, especially David Suchet and Diana Rigg, were tremendous. Their American accents were excellent.
William Coakley of New Jersey:
I did like it better than the movie. It wasn't as vicious as the movie was. But I've always been confused about their games, about what the rules are. I'm not sure where or how their marriage went off track. Suchet was very believable. But I didn't think Diana Rigg did as well as he did. You could see her acting.
Nowadays Martha wouldn't expect her husband to rise [in the educational world] like that. Women now do things on their own.
Sandra Caliguiri of New Jersey:
No only have women have gained more freedom, but men have too. The pressure to be successful is off.
I thought the production was excellent -- the performances were outstanding. But I don't know as far as the content of it. It seemed pointless to me to write something that violent. It was disturbing in the beginning because I have a difficult time handling conflict. It's so vicious. At one point I felt like leaving the theatre. It is interesting, though, how they put the humor in there. I don't remember laughing at anything in the movie. It was a relief [in the play] to how dark it was.
James Simon of New York:
It's fascinating when -- even after you see a film like "Virginia Woolf" [and] you go into the play knowing what's going to happen -- you're still mesmerized. It starts funny, it grabs you, and it never lets up. Terrific ensemble acting. It's quite a ghost story. Obviously these are bright minds. There was a co-dependency, but there had to be love at some level. There's so much meat there.
Lester Bushman of Pensylvania:
My feeling is that Diana Rigg and David Suchet presented a new dimension to a very powerful episode in history. It speaks to me of such a lack of creativity [among 1996 playwrights]. Where are the new ones who are equal to this? Diana Rigg is so viviacious in the early scenes, but in the last couple of scenes, you can see that she's tired. She's one of my favorites, back to the "Avengers" and Night and Day.
Alfred Anderson of Dallas, TX:
[Off-type casting like that of Clare Holman as Bunny] really upsets me. With all the people they auditioned, why couldn't they get someone who fit the character as she's described again and again in the script -- someone who fits the situation? The script says again and again that she's "slim-hipped," but this gal was kind of robust.
My main reservation was, I don't know if the play has mellowed or if I'm just not as easily shocked. It's a nostalgic piece set way into the 1960s. In the '60s, it was a crashing statement about a certain kind of life. But it just doesn't have the shock value anymore. I was curious to see if I'd be as shocked [as he was when it first came out] and I thought "How mild." How we have changed. To have the same shock value, a play today would have to involve murder-- or abuse of some kind. [Back then] they were able to work out all these desperate difficulties verbally. The world is -- I hesitate to use the word "better" -- but, "more informed."
Playbill On-Line will be reporting from London throughout the week of Nov. 19-24. As a group we'll be touring the the Royal National Theatre the working recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre -- as well as seeing a reviewing a variety of West End shows including the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar that opened just two days ago, and, by demand from the members of the group, the long-running musical hit, Blood Brothers.
Also, on their own, members of the group plan to see Miss Saigon Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Scrooge, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), By Jeeves, When We Are Married, A Doll's House and others. Check in daily to follow our progress.
Playbill is planning more exciting Preview Tours to London in spring and summer of 1997. We get the toughest tickets for the newest productions, and post guests' reviews online. For inquiries, call Beverly Markman or Roberta Cohen at (800) 554-7513.
-- By Robert Viagas