Darren Gilshenan and Genevieve Lemon are not the first actors that spring to mind to play George and Martha in Edward Albee’s corrosive psychodrama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both are known primarily for their exceptional comedic skills. So when the Ensemble Theatre announced its 2017 season, their casting was met with some surprise. Well, thumbs up to director Iain Sinclair and the Ensemble for it proves to have been an astute, inspired decision. The two of them are superb in this new Ensemble production, Lemon breath-takingly so.

Genevieve Lemon and Darren Gilshenan. Photograph © Prudence Upton

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered in New York in 1962 it shocked audiences to the core and became an instant classic. A 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sealed its fame. Fifty years on, the dazzlingly well written drama may not shock to the same degree but it retains its ferocious bite.

The three-act play (performed here with one interval) is set on a New England campus over a hellish, booze-fuelled night. Warring married couple George and Martha return home at 2am after a university faculty dinner party hosted by Martha’s father who is the president of the college. George is an associate professor of history but hasn’t amounted to much and will never take over the department as Martha had once hoped.

Without consulting George, Martha has invited a recently appointed young biology professor called Nick (Brandon McClelland) and his mousey wife Honey (Claire Lovering) to join them and keep partying. As copious amounts of brandy, bourbon and gin are consumed, George and Martha embark on some vicious mind games, including one called “Get the Guests”.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland and Darren Gilshenan. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Initially they are complicit, attacking each other verbally in what is clearly a well-worn routine to embarrass their guests. A look of glee between Lemon and Gilshenan at the end of Act One speaks reams. But when Martha crosses a line, and breaks the rules of one of their private games by telling Honey about their son, things become far uglier as George turns on Martha with deadly intent, moving from passive aggression to something altogther less passive.

Albee’s play was last staged in Sydney in 2007 at Belvoir St Theatre, directed by Benedict Andrews who did away with the 1960s setting and American accents, staging it on a minimal, slick black and chrome set. Not everyone was convinced by the updating and some of the Australian accents were jarring but it was a shattering, unforgettable production ending with a stage awash with vomit, broken glass and melting ice cubes: physical manifestation of the emotional carnage.

Darren Gilshenan and Brandon McClelland. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Sinclair’s production is far more traditional, retaining its original setting, and yet it is equally powerful. The performances from all four actors feel so unfiltered, so real, that the play comes across as fresh, intense and blisteringly savage. Designer Michael Hankin uses the Ensemble space brilliantly in evoking George and Martha’s fusty home – a cluttered mess with shabby brown furniture, piles of books on the floor, a half-eaten sandwich on the table that they don’t bother to clear away before the guests arrive, and a well-stocked drinks trolly. It certainly merits Martha’s assessment as “a dump”.

Hankin’s costumes are bang on as well – unattractive brown trousers, shapeless cardigan and open-necked shirt for George, tweedy jacket, chinos and tie for Nick, a green suit for Martha, who later changes into a flashy gold and black top with tight black pants, and a pretty cream frock with matching cardie for Honey. Sian James-Holland’s lighting and Steve Toulmin’s sound design enhance the moody atmosphere of the production.

Sinclair has cast it wonderfully well, and all four actors completely inhabit their characters. Lemon has umpteen stage credits to her name from classic plays like Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for Melbourne Theatre Company and Death of a Salesman for Belvoir, to The Wharf Revue and the musical Billy Elliot. But her portrayal of Martha is arguably a career-defining performance.

She explodes on stage, brassy, larger-than-life and fearless, with lethal comic timing. The laughs come loud and fast initially. Lemon knows exactly where to place the emphasis to wring the most sardonic humour out of any line of dialogue. You can see her Martha constantly sizing up the situation, spinning on a dime as she decides which way to play things for maximum impact, which verbal grenade or vicious barb to lob next.

She’s like a heat-seeking missile as she lacerates George, flirts with Nick and pushes Honey (literally as they head upstairs together). It’s a riveting, volatile, quicksilver performance. And then, as things start to turn, Lemon gradually reveals the vulnerability beneath Martha’s armour-plating, heart-rendingly at the very end.

Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering and Darren Gilshenan. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Gilshenan is the perfect foil as George: still and quiet in the face of the tornado that is Martha, soaking up her venom, but with a razor-sharp tongue himself and impeccable comic timing. Every now and again he explodes with rage, but beneath the world weariness, sarcasm and anger, we feel his misery.

McClelland nails the rather pompous, boorish, stolid but intelligent Nick who finds reserves of strength to draw on as the evening disintegrates, while Lovering makes the underwritten Honey entirely believable, capturing her naivety without making her too simperingly sweet. She conveys Honey’s increasing intoxication with subtlty and her interpretive dance is exceptionally funny.

All in all, Sinclair and his cast keep us on the edge of our seat throughout the entire three-hour emotional roller-coaster and send us out of the theatre reeling.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Ensemble Theatre until June 18


Sign up to the Limelight newsletter