A labour of love

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The Loverdir Charlie HennikerBurton TaylorTues 26 to Sat 30 April
Another term, another Pinter play; Oxford just can’t seem to get enough of those pregnant pauses. They make for characteristically uncomfortable viewing in the opening scene of The Lover, one of Pinter’s earliest one-act plays, as bourgeois village-dwelling Richard engages his bored wife Sarah in inane conversation about the traffic, the crooked blinds – and her lover, and whether or not he liked the hollyhocks. While they fill their evenings wondering about dinner, the pair spend their afternoons in the thrill of dangerous illicit liaisons; she entertaining passers-by with the lure of strawberries and he attacking innocent young women in parks. Such matter-of-factness about the other’s wandering eye and roving hand suggests the acceptability of the ‘open relationship’ in the swinging sixties; the only catch is, they are having affairs with each other.
When they meet as lovers cavorting in various roleplays the scenes are highly erotic. Richard is transformed from a downtrodden commuter to a powerful bongobanging seducer and Sarah into a wheedling enchantress. Yet in their evening meetings together it is clear that their arrangement is tearing them apart. Pinter’s great skill lies in creating a love triangle out of two people: Richard becomes jealous of himself and loathes his wife in her sexual roles. She flatters his choice of witty mistress; to him, she is merely a “functionary whore”, pleasant enough for the moment but not worth hanging onto indefinitely. The palpable tension of Pinter’s writing explores the danger of separating life from sex life, although one feels that in places it is slightly overwritten, underestimating the audience’s ability to keep up with the plot.
Colour plays a vital role in this highly charged production. The red and black room in which they play out their fantasies becomes a sinister boudoir. The formal living room becomes a nest of props in which to fulfil their desires, a shoe takes on a terrible significance. While dressed in white, Sarah is ostensibly a chaste housewife, in red she becomes the lustful Dolores. The two actors convey the multiple personalities of the married couple with great skill and sensitivity. Emma Jenkinson excels as the sweetly smiling wife, always giving the impression she knows a great deal more than her husband and has him irrevocably under her spell. She is equally arresting as a broken woman when the game is up, when not only their sex lives but also their very identities are at stake. Rob Hayward plays the cuckold with great tenderness, unable to look his wife in the eye, and yet also shows the sadness of a husband who has lost his true love, trapped in a perverse fiction.
This production is certainly gripping, and the intimacy of the Burton Taylor can only add to the intensity of the drama. It seems, however, that it is in parts a little über-Pinter. The comedic aspects, particularly in the opening scene, seem to have been played down to darken the play from the outset. While the seriousness of the atmosphere does create a strong air of unease, some juxtaposition of lighthearted playfulness with the dark world they inhabit may have added to the strengths of the play. As it is, it can seem a little self-important. The superlative acting, however, and the chemistry between the two characters make this an excellent piece of theatre. It makes for a good short introduction to Pinter’s work and the dangers of multiplepersonality adultery.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005

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