Landscape and A Slight Ache
by Harold Pinter
The National Theatre
Director: Iqbal Khan
Set, Costume and Lighting Designer: Ciaran Bagnall
Cast: Jamie Beamish, Clare Higgins, Simon Russell Beale
The observer effect. After the play Betrayal, from 1981, I lost track of Harold Pinter. London productions of his plays have the zing of authentic English irony, etched menace, and pithy delivery that doesn’t come across with American accents. One could see Pinter as an actor as late as 1995 when he appeared in the West End in a revival of an earlier work, The Hothouse. Pinter is as strange and threatening on stage as on paper, although a witty anecdote circulated around that production. Supposedly his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, phoned up the management and said, “The whole run has been so successful, Harold and I were thinking that you should have the Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theater,” to which the manager replied, “Or he could just rename himself Harold Comedy.”
Pinter claimed to have learned his style of dialog from riding the Tube, and there are Pinteresque scenes all over town if you keep your eyes open. Last night I watched a man building a sand castle on the South Bank of the Thames in the shape of a living room complete with sofas, TV, and empty beer cans. He had drained quite a few real beer cans and was yelling blurrily to the crowd leaning over the railing watching him. At the National Theatre close by I saw Pinter’s one-act A Slight Ache, which was written early (1958) but after The Birthday Party, so the play is by no means immature. The cast consists of a husband and wife, gentrified, living in the country, and an old man, a match seller standing by their back gate. In the first line the wife uses the word “convolvulus,” and suddenly I remembered that I had seen the play before, in the tiny Gate Theatre off the West End. Both productions were commendable, but the National was able to call on two renowned lead actors, Clare Higgins and Simon Russell Beale. In their more expansive style they amplified all of Pinter’s nuances, for better or worse.
Mostly it was for better. The old match seller gets invited into the house by Edward, the husband, at first out of curiosity and irritation. Why does the match seller stand like a statue in the lane, rain or shine, holding out his tray of matchboxes but never selling any? A country lane is a stupid place to sell matches, and he allows his boxes to get wet and sodden in the rain. The wife, Flora, feels uneasy about letting in an intruder but accedes and even goes to fetch him at the back gate. What follows is a demonstration of pure psychological projection. The old man, his face hidden behind a black balaklava, remains a statue, saying nothing and making minimal movements, yet Edward and Flora attribute all manner of things to him: threat, derision, failure, fear of death, and sexual longing. The technique of unravelling superficial manners to reveal the psyche’s underneath is common to Pinter – you could say it’s his stock in trade – but A Slight Ache isn’t the most compelling example.
For one thing, Pinter relies heavily on monologue. Flora and Edward each interview the old man, and his presence incites long stretches of free association in both. Flora recalls a ride in the woods as a girl where her pony threw her and she was (apparently) raped by a poacher. Edward recalls his youth, too, when he viewed a three-masted schooner through a telescope and later lay in the grass after a cricket match. The combination of idyll, regret, suppressed violence, failure, and thwarted desire is potent but drawn out, and Pinter’s version of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry of flesh and flowers feels imitative, though eloquent. One expects the marital relationship to unfold its violent underpinnings, boredom and routine turning from banal to vicious. Pinter doesn’t disappoint. In the final scene Edward collapses and may be dying, while Flora leads off the dumb old man to be her new pet and presumably her weird sex object. The quotidian rhythm of country life has been devoured by unconscious drives. It took Freud and Beckett t engender Pinter’s bleak satires on respectability, but one must admire how thoroughly he styled their world and made it his own.