first night

The Lover

Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill pauses for thought over Harold Pinter's marital comedy.

For a play only forty minutes in length, Pinter’s 1962 piece is a real thinker. It’s one of those unique little gems that has you hooked from the off, and keeps you intoxicated by its sheer bemusing bravado until the final lines are spoken. And even then, at the end of proceedings, the curtain falls on a dumbfounded audience rooted to the spot. I’ve only ever witnessed this twice before – once in a production of The Pillowman where the audience was left paralysed with anguish and awe, and once in The Shape of Things, where the ‘big reveal’ felt like a shot of tequila on an empty stomach. Once the rush of blood to the head had subsided, everyone basically just wanted more.


The writing here is undoubtedly beautiful – Pinter is one of those rare artists whose meaning is to be found not in what is spoken, but what is shown, and more pertinently, in what is left unspoken. The emphasis here is on the absences, the silences, and the gaps on which your finger is constantly, agonisingly failing to land. As such, the atmosphere in the audience is permanently akin to that moment right before your first kiss, with electricity and awkwardness engaging in a rather endearing tug of war down your spinal column. Is it ironically comedic or nervily dramatic? I couldn’t put my finger on it…


The first scene does its job of setting the tone for the engagingly bizarre shebang with hushed gusto. The stereotypically stilted banality of the bourgeois conversation between Sarah (Catherine Ellis) and her husband, Richard (Steffan Griffiths), demonstrates the ‘unspoken’ richness of Pinter throughout. We are lead to believe that there are three characters in the play – the husband, the wife, and her lover. Richard’s ease and indifference to this rather unconventional arrangement is a little disconcerting, but even more so when the lover comes to call the following afternoon and is revealed to be the husband adopting a role. This resulted in some of the production’s greatest comedic moments, such as Griffiths whipping out a tomtom drum and closing in on Ellis whilst seductively striking his fingers across it in time with his pace. David Head is also to be commended on having the astonishing, puppeteer-like ability to have the entire audience in creases at the utterance of a single word.


In a play in which the tiniest gesture carries unspeakable significance, it is crucial that these are woven into the production with utmost fluency. And here, the details are cooked to perfection, with Griffiths’ facial expressions and subtlety of movement adding tremendous richness to the piece as a whole. It is a delight to observe the extent to which Griffiths’ versatility as an actor is increasing exponentially, and in direct proportion with his confidence on stage. He brought out the best in Catherine Ellis, a relatively new face to DST, and together the pair underscored the remarkable directorial talent and sleight of hand we’ve seen before from Donnchadh O’Conaill. His ability to draw out the inherent comedy from a piece of drama remains unparalleled on The Assembly Rooms’ stage.


The music is unobtrusive and fitting; the scenery for the living room is effective, as is that for the bedroom, which at one point uses light glowing from behind a chiffon curtain to form silhouettes of the actors standing in front of it, underpinning the motif of concealed identity. Overall, though, the stage simultaneously feels cluttered and a little under-furnished for the era. This is perhaps an attempt to avoid dating the production, but could have been achieved with more attention to detail. A major flaw I found with the play was the lack of climax, although this is more a failing on Pinter’s part than on O’Conaill’s, and this might simply be a question of taste. The first scene is gripping, unravelling the crux of the story to come and nailing us to our seats for Act II, which is more of the same, but when that, albeit fascinating, concept has been exhausted, the action seems to form a kind of plateau, not quite progressing in any direction. It’s possibly more of a ‘comment piece’ than anything else, but it feels to the audience as though someone has taken away their lollipop. As a whole though, The Lover is as slick, stylish and seductive a production as I have seen in Durham, setting the bar incredibly high for the forthcoming theatrical year.


22 October 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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