A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. This and the fact that Albee also wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, set high expectations which, disappointingly, are not met at the end. It is a painfully slow and long play with a fair dosage of unrealistic elements in it.
The play opens with Agnes and Tobias talking – or rather it is mostly Agnes talking – about old age and the fear of losing one’s sanity. On the surface, they seem to be having a cosy and contended life together but, at the same time, you wonder if they’ve kept secrets from each other. It’s not until we meet Claire, Agnes’ alcoholic sister, when we discover the first crack in the deceptively charming life led by Agnes and Tobias. There are allusions to Tobias’ infidelity many years ago and we wonder if Claire was once his lover. We meet Julia, their daughter, who has fled her fourth marriage to come to stay with her parents. Her parents are frustrated with her but they do not seek to understand her decisions and actions. Unexpectedly, the couple’s ‘best friends’, Harry and Edna turn up and ask to stay because they’re ‘terrified’ and do not want to be in their own home. Agnes and Tobias are astonished with their friends’ decision but, just as they are with their daughter, they do not seek to understand or question the reasons behind their friends’ request.
Not confronting reality or running away from reality is one of the themes of this play and it is what makes up Agnes and Tobias. The only character in the play who speaks her mind is Claire but you wonder if she’d be just as honest if she weren’t alcoholic. Even if Claire speaks her mind, she isn’t honest to herself about her alcoholism. As the play progresses, we discover that Agnes has suspected her husband’s infidelities; we also discover the coldness in the relationships between all characters which they conceal behind their upper class lives.
Agnes and Tobias are delayered as the play progresses but the delayering takes a mighty long time. The play leaves the audience with many unanswered questions which is dissatisfactory. Why does Harry and Edna come to stay, uninvited, with Agnes and Tobias? More importantly, what makes them leave at the end? Why does Claire live with Agnes and Tobias when both sisters are disdainful towards each other? Claire hints in Act One that she knows why Harry and Edna have turned up to stay but she never discloses this. At one point, Tobias breaks into a story about a cat but he withers on for much of it and I am still clueless about the symbolism of his cat story to the play.
There are big names in this casting: Penelope Wilton (Agnes), Imelda Staunton (Claire) and Tim Piggott-Smith (Tobias) who give the expected good performances. My only nitpicking on the acting has to do with Wilton’s cut-glass accent – when the play opens and we hear Wilton’s Agnes speak, it is difficult to ascertain if the play takes place in England or in the east coast of the US.
Overall, it is a play that can only be enjoyed best with patience and perseverance and the luxury of leisurely time. For a play that promised much, I couldn’t wait for it to end. But as I left the theatre, I made a mental note to stay away from plays where the characters sit in their comfortable homes, drink copious amounts of alcohol and talk. My patience has worn thin.
A Delicate Balance is on at the Almeida Theatre until 2 July. Performance time is approximately 3 hours with two short intervals.