Imogen Poots is making her West End debut in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a classic of Broadway theatre. Co-star Luke Treadaway can already boast an Olivier award for his last stage performance. But they’re both enjoying digging deep into a script where the four characters never let the audience relax for a moment.
When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, it was an immediate hit and Edward Albee’s play ran for 18 months straight.
Audiences were gripped by the marriage of middle-aged George and Martha, who, as the New York Times said at the time, “claw each other like jungle beasts”.
In 1966 came the film, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor took best actress at the Oscars, while the supporting actress award went to Sandy Dennis for her role as the younger, slightly naive Honey.
The play is set at on the campus of an American college. Honey and Nick (Poots and Treadaway) are a young married couple who pay George and Martha (Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton) a late-night visit.
The ensuing alcohol-fuelled fury is both very funny and, at times, scary.
Poots has starred in films from 28 Weeks Later to The Look of Love and her list of credits is expanding rapidly. At 27, though, this is her West End debut.
“All through rehearsals, the director James Macdonald reminded us this play is a quartet,” she says.
“Honey and Nick aren’t there just to set up George and Martha’s rows and bickering.
“Definitely anger is part of the piece. But I think even more it’s about pretence and facades and when people choose to give up facades – and the fact that some people never do it.
“So there’s a huge amount to work with as an actor. The scenes are intense and you have to work out what’s being said underneath.
“It’s the opposite of being on a film, where the light is going and there’s 10 minutes to shoot a scene and you just jump.”
It’s Luke Treadaway’s first time on stage since 2012 and his Olivier-winning performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
“James Macdonald told us getting this play right would take a lot of what he called ‘band practice’,” he says. “In other words, the very exact process of getting the performances and relationships to work bit by bit.
“You have to creep up on the roles and establish what the truth is in every scene and what’s illusion.
“It’s a big play and there are a lot of words. That’s hard work as an actor, but it’s not like we had to go and work down the mines – it’s been really energising.”
Poots interrupts with a laugh: “We both found that James has one of the traits of a good director – he leads you to a particular interpretation in such a way you’re totally convinced you got there yourself.
“There are moments where our characters provide a blank canvas for George and Martha to do their Jackson Pollock – to use us as a way of expressing themselves.
“But with actors as superb as Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton up there with you, everyone’s complexities are going to emerge.”
Treadaway says that as the play progresses, the audience has to start to wonder about the relationship between the two younger characters.
“It’s an interesting question how happy they really are together. You get chinks which throw light on something more complex.”
Honey and Nick, he continues, “arrive trying to provide a united front as a golden couple. But as in any couple in life, that’s never always the full picture.
“There are moments when George and Martha’s games rip the truth out of them.
“Early on there’s a more or less innocent flirtation between me and Martha, who, of course, is older. But as the play moves on it gets less innocent – and of course, this is all with his wife there in the house.
“Edward Albee gave the play all these depths and complexities. The flirtation may seem a bit icky, but the audience also understands what may be pushing Nick into the liaison.”
A look at Poots’ list of recent cinema credits might suggest she’d be glad to take a break from filming for a while.
“That’s interesting, because you can do a film and it will be out in months and other times it can take two years or even more,” she remarks.
“Sometimes a film just does the festival thing and that’s about it. Or suddenly it can be on screens everywhere. And certain films pretty much disappear and you never really know why.
“One recent film I really loved making which isn’t out yet is called Mobile Homes. It’s about a girl who imports chickens from Puerto Rico. We made it in Canada, but the director is a French guy called Vladimir de Fontenay.
“It was his passion project and he’s one of those New York University geniuses, so I’m really looking forward to it coming out. But you never really know what will happen with a film or a play.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London.