The Lover - The Young Vic 1987

Programme Cover

The Lover, The Young Vic, London, June 1987
in a double bill with A Slight Ache

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 anguish.
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

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