Getting Albee Right

Michael Cox speaks to director Michael Emans about capturing the essence of Edward Albee's writing.

Michael Cox: When did you first decide you wanted to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Michael Emans: I’ve wanted to do this for years. A lot of people have been turned down in Scotland. We put together a proposal which we think appealed, and we got the rights. It’s a feather in our cap that Albee gave us the rights. You feel a sort of responsibility: we’ve got to do really good now. But we’ve got a smashing cast of actors.

MC: In casting, did you have a specific type of person you were looking for, or was it a matter of waiting for the right person to come who was just the character?

ME: A combination of both. You’re looking for actors who can handle text, and you’re looking for actors who have an energy to them, who have got ‘chutzpah’ to them, who’ve got an intelligence to them, who’ve got a sensitivity to language and emotion. So it’s quite a big checklist. You want actors who can do all of that, and that isn’t as easily to find as one necessarily thinks. And the ages have to be right.

MC: It’s a play that’s over 50 years old. What makes Virginia Woolf relevant to a modern audience?

ME: I think people relate to these characters. It’s about relationships at the end of the day. It’s about love and it’s—well, the relationships are somewhat dysfunctional but there’s still love there. But it’s not an issue play. It’s a play about people. The play is so rich. It’s so deep. It’s like an onion—you peel away a layer and you’ve got another. A criticism I’ve heard of the play is that it could just be people shouting at each other for three hours, but there’s a lot of humour in it. It’s a nice contrast to all the dramatic moments—well, the more emotional moments. It’s very extreme—I suppose that’s the mark of a really good play.

MC: This is a play you’ve wanted to do for a long time. Does that initial excitement for the piece still hold, or is there a newfound push to make this play happen?

ME: I think I first wanted to do this almost 15 years ago. I’m older now. I’m actually the same age as George in the play—we’re both 46.

MC: So you were more of a Nick at the time?

ME: Yes. So, I’m coming to the play now probably at the right time. The passion is still there, but there’s more life experience. That’s an important change for me.

MC: Do you think you now have more sympathy or empathy for George and Martha, or are you more suspicious of them as you are more similar in age now?

ME: I see it from both sides, actually. I read some notes that were written quite a while ago, and they talked about Honey being a lesser character. But I think that Honey is key. Every character is key. It’s a play about four characters.

MC: I think that it’s a play that past productions have gotten stuck on Martha so much—they’ve ignored the other three.

ME: Kind of, yeah. She has great lines, and you will always get a powerful actress playing Martha. Maybe in the past there was a value for a play to have a female character that was so powerful. Maybe that’s why so many people were attracted to Martha. Some productions cast her first then cast around her. But this play has four rich characters, so this is an ensemble piece and not just a play about one person.

MC: How has it been tackling such a difficult, highly regarded play?

ME: I have loved doing this. It’s been special. I’m happy we got the three-year backing from Creative Scotland because we’ve built to this point over the last couple of years. Knowing we had that backing gave us confidence to go and do this.

MC: It’s good that Creative Scotland is backing experimental theatre as well as language-based full evenings out.

ME: That’s the great thing. You’ve got Vanishing Point on one end and you’ve got David Leddy’s company Fire Exit, and you’ve got the Lyceum and Dundee Rep and Rapture, amongst other companies. We all do something that’s quite different. That variety is good for audiences. You don’t want everybody doing ‘vast experimental’ stuff. In fact, every one is doing ‘experimental’ work. Until you know the result, everything is an experiment. By supporting different things, you’re bringing more people into the audience. You’ve got an awful lot of companies that do different things, but we compliment each other because of who we all are.

© Michael Cox

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee

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