Ian Farthing is directing Bear and Company’s production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at The Gladstone Theatre, with Paul Rainville in the lead role of George. The play opens April 7th.
Brian Carroll interviewed Farthing and Rainville about this production and some of their other work.
Apt613: Can you give me a 30-second precis of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Farthing: Intelligent people behaving badly.
It’s set in a New England university. George is married to Martha who is the daughter of the university president. There has been a party at her father’s house on campus at the start of the new semester. A new lecturer has arrived in town. They met at the party. He and his wife are invited back to George and Martha’s for a post-party drink.
After that, fun and games ensue.
You were Artistic Director of the St. Lawrence Shakespearean Festival in Prescott for 10 years. You performed in The Sound of Music in Toronto for a year and a half. In Vancouver, you’ve directed plays like Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Frost/Nixon. You have a knack for making plays from other eras relevant to contemporary audiences. How do you do that?
Farthing: The plays that interest me the most are the ones that have something to say to us, here and now. Now, it doesn’t mean they have to be set in contemporary time. If you look at Shakespeare, directors have set him in any possible era you can think of. But they all have something to say to us, here and now.
When you were at the St. Lawrence, people would come to you and say: “What a wonderful interpretation of Shakespeare!”
Farthing: The question I heard the most was, “Who wrote the modern adaptation?”
Of course, it was Shakespeare’s words, but the story was told clearly, by the director and the actors. So people felt that it was contemporary.
But we’re not talking about Shakespeare here. Albee and Shakespeare have a great deal in common, in their use of language, and wit. The word play that you get between the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is very reminiscent of the kind of stuff you see between Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew, for example. The bickering that goes back and forth, where they’re two intelligent people using their wits to fight each other.
So if someone has seen Tag Team Taming of the Shrew by Company of Fools, they would come and see this?
Farthing: Yeah, I think that’s very good ground work for this.
One of my favourite lines in this play is (this): the young guy challenges George on why he and his wife are bickering so much and George says, “We’re exercising…”.
Rainville: “Martha and I are doing nothing. We’re exercising. That’s all. Walking what’s left of our wits.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written in 1962. It was adapted for film in 1966. What are you bringing to 21st century audiences with this production?
Farthing: Like all of the best stories, these characters in this situation are timeless. People don’t change.
Relationships don’t change, over the centuries. This is not being set specifically in 1962, because the piece is timeless.
Paul, your bio contains many premieres. You’ve brought a lot of new plays to Ottawa stages. But you’re also adept at bringing new insights to older plays. For example, when you played Angus in The Drawer Boy, my reaction afterwards was, “So that’s what that play is about!” How do you breathe new life into older plays?
Rainville: It’s not an old play to me! I’m getting to dig into it. We were talking about stuff today. What does this mean? Why does the argument stop here? What are the emotional reasons for Martha arresting her story about their son? Why does she stop mid-stream? What is it? What compels her?
I looked at your headshot and thought, “OMG! That’s George!” Besides the look, what else will you be bringing to this role?
Rainville: Almost 40 years of experience, as an actor. It’s given me a greater appreciation of the poetry of those playwrights.
The words are so delicious. What Albee has done is made me nuts about punctuation. He’s so exact. His punctuation tells you so much about what people are feeling. Thinking, yes, but feeling too. The rhythms send you off on pathways that are very strict, but very rich.
Farthing: One of the reasons, I think, why Paul is so great in this role. He’s a musician, so he understands the musicality of the text, the shape of how Albee has put his words together, to create this visual symphony. Also because we needed an actor of Paul’s experience. He can do things with these words, a slight inflection, change the tenor of a scene.
This play has had revivals this century from 2004 to 2015. Why this play? Why now?
Farthing: At heart, people, audiences are voyeurs. We all love to see people behaving badly. We love to see people tearing each other apart. When it’s done with such witty language, it’s fun to watch.
Rainville: Beatrice and Benedict. Kate and Petruchio. Antony and Cleopatra.
Farthing: Helena and Bertram in All’s Well.
Rainville: The Lion in Winter with Kate Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Burton and Taylor. People pay money to watch these people go at it.
Farthing: They’re iconic roles. Albee plays on the iconic nature with their names. George and Martha are George and Martha Washington.
Rainville: The first family. Adam and Eve.
Farthing: What he (Albee) is saying, about the nature of relationships between George and Martha in the play. … It has a greater resonance.
Rainville: Adam and Eve, the sequel! What was it like 30 years later? “You know, that was a nice house we had!” “You and your apples!”
Thank you, gentlemen.
This interview has been edited for length.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Bear and Company is playing at The Gladstone Theatre. April 7-16. For more information see the Gladstone’s website.