The Lover, The Young Vic, London,
in a double bill with A Slight
Richard - Simon Williams
Sarah - Judy Buxton
John - Malcolm Ward
Directed by Kevin Billington
Designer - John Halle
The Anguish of Reality
by John Peter
Harold Pinter is, among other things, the master cartographer of
the divided self: that treacherous no manís land where oneís inadequacies
come face to face with each other. Who am I? Which of theses unsatisfactory
selves is the real me, and how can I bear it? His early one-act
plays, The Lover and A Slight Ache (Young Vic), are
both about this inner rupture: the uncertain self scouring the world
for what it thinks might be its missing or alternative half. Seeing
these plays in Kevin Billingtonís cool, sinuous and perceptive production
you find yourself wondering why Pinter was ever thought obscure.
Is it just that both plays and audiences improve with age? I think
that Billingtonís direction has a lot to do with it: he keeps a
beady eye on the immaculate bourgeois routine which is Pinterís
cover story for the unspeakable events of his plays.
His world has a sober balance, which is the balance of well-established
schizophrenia, and his characters tamper with it at their peril.
Within this world simple objects, such as a jar of marmalade or
a pair of shoes, acquire huge significance. Pinter is the finest
realistic heir of Symbolist drama ñ which sounds much grander than
it is: we have acquired other, simpler critical props, such as our
old friend the Absurd, to understand the irrational in the theatre.
Basically, Pinterís plays are about psychological warfare. In A
Slight Ache a spruce householder fears and yet invites a bedraggled
outsider; a theme which will reappear superbly, years later, in
No Manís Land. This play is much the less satisfactory of
the double bill: there are too many words with too little to do.
However, it gets a mesmerising performance from Barry Foster: a
beautifully etched portrait of ignorant confident crumbling under
a self-invited threat. In The Lover, Judy Buxton and Simon
Williams give an icily brilliant account of the tortured puritanical
mind in which fantasy is both the cure and the justification of
dullness, and marital war is simply the continuation of marital
peace by other means. These are gripping performances in which every
movement and glance carries huge weight: the true language of secret
The Sunday Times, 28th June 1987
Review by Michael Billington
It has been a good week for Harold Pinter. First a powerful production
of The Birthday Party on television. Now the Vienna English Theatre's
double-bill of The Lover ( a play first seen on TV in 1963) and
A Slight Ache (originally produced on radio in 1959) comes to the
Young Vic. What is proves, aside from the durability of his plays,
is how much Pinter gains from being played with comic lightness
and speed rather than with reverence.
Kevin Billington's opening production of The Lover is well acted
but a little too aware of its own significance. The play presents
us with an archetypal situation in which an ultra-respectable couple
act out afternoon fantasies as lover and whore.
I take the play to be both a comment on the staleness of bourgeois
marriage and on the need to reconcile out instinctual appetites
with our tamed, public, social selves. But what is fascinating is
the skill with which Pinter leads us into a triangular jealousy-drama
enacted by two people and shows the danger of splitting our sexual
lives into watertight compartments.
Judy Buxton captures very well the contrast between the prim Berkshire
housewife and the black-suspendered mistress, and Simon Williams
suggests that under the uptight commuter lurks a demon lover eager
to brandish his bongos. But the over-deliberate pace fails to acknowledge
the audience's speed of apprehension.
A Slight Ache, in which a match-seller is invited into a middle-class
home and gradually supplants its owner, works far better because
Barry Foster as the occupant hits from the start a note of fretful
comic anguish. When his wife announces that its the longest day
of the year, his simple reply of "Really" evoked a life
of unutterable misery.
Mr Foster also gets maximum comic mileage out of the house-owner's
mistreatment of the dirty old match-seller as a reflection of himself.
"Up to all hours working on your thesis," he muses in
a hilarious display of social myopia. By highlighting the comedy,
Mr Foster also underscores the primitive aggression, the thin-skinned
terror and the impotent frustration of the hero so that this play
becomes, like The Lover, a remarkable display of bourgeois insecurity.
The purist Pinter school argues that the play works best on radio
where the match -seller seems a figment of the married couple's
imagination. I profoundly disagree. The physical presence of this
pitiable relic enhances both the comedy and the anxiety: to see
him being patronised by the husband and seduced by the wife even
if Jill Johnson could do with a little more erotic warmth) gives
the play added meaning.
Pinter's early plays are nearly all based on territorial invasion;
and to see the hero disintegrating in the match-seller's presence
is to realise the pathetic frailty of the walls we construct around
our middle-class lives.
The Guardian 26 June 1987
with kind permission of Michael Billington