Edward Albee returned from the professional near-dead with Three Tall Women, his best play in years. In the programme for the current knockout revival of his early success, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), he ponders the injustice of playwrights memorialised for just one `big' play.
Tough, but true: Virginia Woolf's a great play, and Albee's written nothing finer. Last week's opening at the Almeida in Islington of Howard Davies's lacerating revival starring Diana Rigg and David Suchet - both giving the performances of their careers - has already entered theatre legend. The show is sold out and transfers immediately to the Aldwych (and probably Broadway beyond) in November.
In this classic long night's journey into day, the clock ticks round to dawn and George and Martha Washington - failed middle-aged history lecturer hitched to the daughter of the New England university provost, six years his senior - entertain a new college couple, a biology tutor and his edgy wife, for yet more drinks after other drinks. They play `get the guests' and `hump the hostess', toying dangerously with fantasy conditions of having a child who never came home.
There are Oedipal secrets here, but also a ferocious fandango of social sparring and brutishly coded sexual encounters. Above all, the text is a beautifully turned artefact in which, as the critic Christopher Bigsby has suggested, experience has been substituted with language.
As dramatic literature, Virginia Woolf is poised between the last great surge of American postwar playwriting of Williams and Miller and the off-Broadway mid-Sixties explosion. It reverberates as a mournful period piece of lost opportunity. You climb aboard an emotional rollercoaster that is also a bucking, disturbing dinosaur.
The bitter atmosphere of fun is spiked with a mood of frightening social ostracism: like the quartet in Coward's Private Lives, Albee's couples are paired off as emotional winners and losers. The play is a dance of the damned, a Strindbergian fight to the death, led by Rigg's raucous, still beautiful Martha in silvery, zebra-striped leggings and a springy mop of orange hair. The tension comes from the routine of abuse and dissent rehearsed for a new audience - Lloyd Owen's outstandingly good Nick and Clare Holman as his mousey spouse.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor never made a better film together, but Davies's production is far more humorous and, finally, powerful, thanks to Suchet's darting, sardonic delivery; while Burton scraped the vowels off the back of his throat and seemed to curl up and die behind his spectacles, Suchet rules the roost with the merciless calculation of a man for whom defence is the most potent weapon of attack. This makes Rigg's Martha all the more vulnerable, all the more moving.