Simon Russell Beale
As with Samuel Beckett, audiences fall over themselves these days to show that they get the humour of Harold Pinter, filling every pause with knowing laughter. And this was very much the case at the National’s double bill of the man’s one act plays. But though A Slight Ache is funny, there are no real belly laughs to be had though you would think otherwise listening to the response to something as simple as Simon Russell Beale’s Edward putting on his glasses.
The whole of the first scene of Ache was swallowed up with this sort of knockabout stuff, but a subtle change in lighting at the start of the second scene silenced the panto crowd, acting like a low drone and steering the play into its natural menacing mode.
Being set in just a couple of rooms A Slight Ache can suffer from too much directorial gimmickry, but Iqbal Kahn’s revolving stage was unobtrusive and, at a push, was even suggestive of the twists and turns of middle-aged married couple Edward and Flora’s psychological revelations.
The prime force in this play is the old matchseller lurking, first in the garden, and then in the house, but mainly in the minds of the husband and wife. He doesn’t say a single word throughout the play, instead he acts like an expert psychoanalyst; merely allowing his subjects to untie their own festering knots by prattling on until they reveal all. As the matchseller, Jamie Beamish did an excellent job of playing either the passive idiot or the needy tramp (especially considering his face was always covered) but being enough of a blank canvass to allow Edward or Flora to see in him what they would.
Clare Higgins portrayed Flora as quite a prim and dizzy thing, delivering her off-hand memory of being raped as if it was a fantasy, and using her face to indicate Pinter’s famously precise punctuation with natural ease. As her husband Simon Russell Beale lived up to the complexity of the role, his most telling moment coming in a tiny involuntary shudder when he asks the matchseller I say, can you hear me? and gets no answer. This is the beginning of his breakdown.
Landscape, the other play in this double bill, was written nine years later and has an entirely different atmosphere, but is about the same thing: the plain incompatibility of people. This time the husband and wife are much older and have long since stopped communicating. Beth and Duff take it in turns to speak but this is no normal conversation, it’s more like externalised thought- one monologue interrupting the other at deliberate rhythmical intervals.
As with much classic Pinter dialogue, the sentences begin innocently and only turn sour inch by inch- a certain repeated word laying a path to the root of the problem like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Lifelong regrets and bitterness divide the pair, but while Duff lives in the physical world with his guilt, Beth drifts into a glossy and romanticised world with hers.
The set was perfectly simple- this time just a table in the centre of the stage, but significantly placed at the angle that would create the largest distance between the two lovers.