A Slight Ache – August 2008


By Harold Pinter

Directed by Iqbal Kahn

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th August 2008

This was effectively a platform performance at the Lyttelton – the set was on a raised platform at the front of the Never So Good set. It held enough furniture to represent several rooms in a big house, plus the garden. Chairs were everywhere, including a few on their side in the garden, with plants trailing all over them.

Plants featured strongly in the dialogue as well, with the usual Pinterish contretemps between husband and wife over what the plants were called and whether or not the husband actually knows which plants are in his garden. The wife is called Flora, though the husband refers to her as Fanny, even though he appears to be talking about another woman; the usual sort of thing for a Pinter play.

The story is simple. A matchseller has positioned himself by their back garden gate, and has been standing there for months, without apparently selling any matches. The husband tries to talk to him, but can’t get him to say anything. The wife has a go, and manages to get the measure of the man, priapically speaking. The husband has another go, but is stricken with some unnamed affliction, and ends up prostrate on the floor with the matchseller’s tray, while the wife gets the matchseller. End of play.

There’s more to it than that, of course. The opening scene over breakfast includes a wasp-killing sequence that was both gruesome and funny, especially when the husband, fresh from the slaughter, feels invigorated and ready to get on with the day. He’d been feeling a slight ache in his eyes, but killing the wasp seems to have worked better than aspirin.

The wife finds him later in the scullery, wanting to be left alone, and clearly obsessing about the matchseller. When she sits in the chair he’s vacated, she gets a perfect view of the man. It’s after this that the husband tells his wife to bring the man in so he can talk with him in the study. She suggests calling the police, or perhaps the vicar, which got a good laugh. He’s determined, though, so she goes out to ask the man to come in, tempting him with an offer to buy all his matches. He shuffles on stage gradually, looking very decrepit. He’s swathed in heavy clothes from head to foot, and as it’s a hot summer’s day, midsummer’s day in fact, he must be sweltering. We can see his leather balaclava and huge coat, and it turns out later he’s also wearing a jumper and a vest. No wonder he’s going so slowly and looking so weak.

The husband welcomes him into his study, and offers him drinks and a seat, but the chap just stands there, saying nothing. The husband does all the talking, and so we get to hear about the local squire as was and his three daughters, all with flaming red hair. He can’t remember what the third daughter was called, and then he gets it – Fanny, “a flower”. He’s disparaging about Fanny, and if you know your Pinter that tells you instantly she’s his wife. Frustrated at his inability to make the man talk, he does finally manage to shoo him into the corner where he’s in shade and can cool down. When he does eventually sit down, it’s on the bigger chair the husband was sitting on at the start of the scene, the first step in swapping places.

At some point the husband is overcome and has to dash out to the garden for some air. He pretends to his wife that he’s doing better with the chap than  he actually is, but she decides to go and talk to the man herself. This is where she starts to uncover more than her husband achieved. She demonstrates the unholy trinity that applies to almost all Pinter’s women characters – mother, wife, whore. She comments on the man’s disgusting smell, but inhales deeply through the chiffon scarf she’s just used to wipe his head and face. She leaves us in no doubt that she’s found a man she intends to keep, and they won’t just be talking about the garden or killing wasps.

Her husband comes along and boots her out, and it’s clear at this point that his eye trouble is getting worse. He seems to be almost blind, and his emotions are in a right state as well. He tears his jacket off, and pulls his shirt out from his trousers. To be honest, I can’t remember what he was talking about at this point, as it didn’t interest me much. He just seemed to be ranting without giving us any more insight into the play, but then he collapsed on the ground, still ranting, and I knew the end was nigh. Sure enough, the wife returns, takes the matchseller by the hand, then takes his tray away, places it on her husband’s tummy, and leaves with her new man, who’s walking with a spring in his step now.

I assume the play is about female infidelity caused by the rampant sexual lust that rages through all womankind, according to Pinter, and the effect it can have on the poor men who get enmeshed in our snares. As such I find it less interesting than some of his other plays, but still an entertaining use of an hour in the theatre. The performances were splendid, as is to be expected from Claire Higgins and Simon Russell Beale, and Jamie Beamish gave them a good blank page to project onto. This play is being continued and partnered with another short Pinter, but as we weren’t so taken with this one, we may not bother with the double bill.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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