On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!
Earlier this year, Sam Strong's production of Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, which opened the new fortyfivedownstairs, not with a bang, but a whimper, proved that the playwright could survive even the most clumsy and uncomprehending of treatments. The play's capacity to withstand wear-and-tear – and believe me, this production wore and tore it – spoke loudly of its quality, and of that of Pinter's work more generally.
If there was one thing that could be said for the production, it was that it at least put an important work, by one of the theatre's most important practitioners, on the Melbourne stage. Now, with Matt Scholten's thoughtful interpretation of Pinter's earlier radio play, A Slight Ache (1959), we have the opportunity to experience the playwright's work for the second time in less than six months. A Slight Ache is, appropriately enough, a slighter work than the more stately and terrible Ashes to Ashes, but as was the case with the earlier production, we can only be thankful for the opportunity to see it. That Scholten's production is both modest and intelligent is simply another reason to be so.
A Slight Ache opens with a conversation between a middle-aged essayist, Edward (Lawrence Price), and his wife, Flora (Lou Endicott). They talk about summer, about the plants in their garden, and about what they might do with the rest of their day (it happens to be, as Flora constantly reminds us, the longest of the year). It's a perfectly ordinary, even banal, conversation, but then Edward and Flora, for all intents and purposes, are a perfectly ordinary, even banal, kind of couple.
But hints of something darker linger just below the surface. The couple catch a wasp in the marmalade, and drown it in hot water. Edward, forever rubbing his eyes, complains of "a slight ache". Talk eventually turns to the unexplained presence of an elderly matchseller down by the gate, who always seems to be there, never seems to sell anything, and who, Edward contends, may not be a matchseller at all, but rather a fraud with questionable motives. As the morning gives way to afternoon, Edward becomes increasingly suspicious, and the couple, more by accident than design, devise a half-baked plan to invite the mysterious matchseller into their home and interrogate him. Flora believes that his innocence will be proven; all they need to do is talk to him. Edward, by contrast, believes precisely the opposite; he doesn't trust this man, this so-called matchseller, as far as he can kick him. For the remainder of the play, with its wall-to-wall monologues and increasingly unsettling atmosphere, the fears and neuroses of the middle-class will rise like scum to the surface of the pond.
This is a beautifully written piece, the language segueing marvellously from ferocity to lyricism with the occasional detour through middle-class twaddle thrown in for good measure. It's the kind of language that actors love, and Price and Endicott make the most of it. Tightly-wound and visibly anxious, though more than capable of erupting at whim, Price's Edward is particularly well drawn, though the fidgety business of taking off and putting his spectacles back on again, over and over ad infinitum, becomes redundant and distracting as the play goes on. While the repetitive nature of the gesture makes perfect sense in narrative terms (Edward does, after all, have that titular ache), one can't help wish that the actor had added some variety to his gestural repertoire. Endicott's performance, while colourful and comedic, is tempered slightly by her vocal affectations; strangely reminiscent of Cate Blanchett's caricature of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, but with an English bent, her accent has an annoying tendency, like Blanchett's, to grate at the ear.
The role with the most riding on it, however, is actually that of the mysterious matchseller, played here by Troy Larkin. It is the matchseller after all – a silent, threatening, otherworldly presence, more a cipher than a character – that represents the characters' phantasms, and onto whom they project their unspoken fears, loathings, and desires. Emerging from the shadows like a reaper, clutching a tray of wet matchboxes in his talons, Larkin's matchseller is the stuff of Gothic horror; his presence, like that of Poe's raven above the chamber door, is ominous and disconcerting. When he turns to us, in the play's final moments, and allows us, finally, to see his face, it is pale and weathered, a memento mori, mocking us with the inevitability of death, a thin and sickly smile across it. Edward, sitting on the floor of his smoking room, staring off into the middle distance like a child, is comparable in these final moments to Poe's tormented narrator; broken and derelict, the slight ache having developed into madness, he becomes the very thing he most feared: the matchseller himself.
Scholten effects this transformation, and prefigures it, with consideration and subtlety. The production's air of Victorian dread is suitably oppressive. As the audience enters to take their seats, Flora, wielding a pair of pruning shears, stands in the back right-hand corner of the space, clipping away at a frightening-looking bush; the matchseller, barely noticeable in the shadows behind the bleachers, is disconcertingly present from the get-go. It is in the second half the play, however, from the moment the matchseller enters the space to the moment he turns to face us at the end, that is handled most impressively. While Edward, now railing against the matchseller, now trying to appease him, stumbles about pontificating in the smoking room, Flora, moving around in the dimly lit sections of the stage as if in a waking dream, takes up her shears and resumes pruning in the foreground, stopping only to wonder, momentarily, at the craggy bush's single petal. In the most telling and intelligently composed image of the production, Edward, pacing about inside the smoking room, and the matchseller, on the other side of the wall, momentarily pause, side by side on stage, facing in opposite directions. For a moment, by virtue of the minimalist set, the actors' proximity to one another, and the resultant symmetricality of the image, the two briefly appear as one and the same person, the two sides of the same coin. It is the moment in which Scholten, with quietly unassuming ambiguity, proves the extent to which he understands the text and can express its various complexities theatrically.
It is worth remembering this image later, in the play's final moments, as Edward and the mysterious matchseller finally trade places. This is a prophetic image, and has a slight ache of its own. The lights flare slightly, like a dying firefly, then fade with all the hallucinatory haziness of an anaesthetic dream.
If Theatre Presents
A Slight Ache
by Harold Pinter
Chapel Off Chapel | 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran
Thursday 28 June – Sun 1 July 2007
Thurs – Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 6:30pm
$20 Full, $15 Concession