An evening with George and Martha, the viciously fighting couple in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, might not be much fun, but time spent with the family in this slightly later work would be even more disturbing. At least George and Martha are alive. The occupants of the plush, suburban American home in A Delicate Balance seem half-dead already (Laura Hopkins’ 1960s set, all heavy, handsome bookcases and funereal floral displays, perfectly suggests both wealth and morbidity). It’s a patchy play, way too long and meandering, but so scintillating at its best that you forgive this. And in James Macdonald’s beautifully pitched production it emerges as a deeply unsettling look at the deadening hand of complacency and the danger of security.
Our hosts here are Tobias and Agnes, a wealthy retired couple whom we first encounter sipping post-dinner drinks and bickering lightly. Agnes fantasises about going mad, from the serene perspective of confidence (which by the end seems misplaced). They seem not very likeable, but unremarkable: she (Penelope Wilton) a self-important control freak; he (Tim Pigott-Smith) a resigned, becardiganed spouse. It emerges that they have guests: Agnes’s alcoholic sister (Imelda Staunton, caustically funny) is already in residence, and their much-divorced daughter (Lucy Cohu, impressively unhinged), is en route back from her latest marital disaster. They sigh over this disastrous pair. “We do what we can,” they agree, a refrain that sounds laudable, but that Albee reveals as a damning expression of timidity.
It’s here that the play takes a surreal turn. A couple of friends suddenly turn up in a bizarrely shaken state. They have been seized, they say, by an inexplicable terror and are moving in with Tobias and Agnes. It’s a pretty awkward dramatic device but it does shift the play into a whole new existential dimension. As the characters drink and fight over two long nights, Albee suggests they are all in flight, terrified to contemplate the lack of meaning and absence of love in their lives, but unwilling to take on anything messy that might disturb the “delicate balance” they deploy to help them get through.
It is a desolate piece, but mordantly funny, handled with fearless honesty by a superb cast.