It is a fine, fine morning in the English countryside — sparkling sunshine, cloudless skies, blooming flowers at their peak.
And there is a wasp in the marmalade.
That surely shouldn’t be enough to destroy a beautiful day, much less an entire existence. Yet for the complacent husband and wife at the center of Harold Pinter’s “A Slight Ache,” a 1958 play, first performed on radio, which has been brought to chilling physical life at the Harold Pinter Theater here, that small, single insect is the beginning of the end.
Yes, the wasp is soon taken care of, drowned by hot water. But then there’s that sinister, silent match seller who’s been standing at the couple’s front gate, day after day after day, though it’s only this morning that they have fully registered his presence.
Why is he there? What does he want? Does he expect them to invite him in? There is so much, it seems, to be afraid of. Fear — of the unknown, of the familiar, and of what happens when one becomes the other — is stalking London’s stages this winter, as Britain continues to squirm under the big, black question mark known as Brexit.
The ghosts of economic catastrophes past also haunt two all-too-credible revivals of plays by Arthur Miller, both of which opened here last week. Both “The Price” (1968) and “The American Clock” (1980) consider the legacy of the Great Depression, a time when cherished American creeds of hope and self-reliance seemed to be swallowed into emptiness.
David Suchet — doing the Yiddish equivalent of his Belgian detective Hercule Poirot — delivers a crowd-pleasing, vaudevillian turn as a wily old antiques dealer in “The Price,” directed by Jonathan Church at Wyndham’s Theater. But I was more affected by Brendan Coyle and Sara Stewart’s pain-filled portrait of a marriage shackled by the enduring clasp of a dead father, who was destroyed — financially and spiritually — by the Depression.
The inventive American director Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) does about as much as can be done in animating the admonitory history class that is “The American Clock.” In her version for the Old Vic, a changing, multiethnic, and gymnastic cast of performers share the same roles in embodying public and private views of the Depression’s far-reaching ravages.
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Neither production overcomes the repetitive didactism that encumbers both scripts, especially “Clock.” But to see them close together, as I did, is to be reminded of how Miller never stopped asking the enduringly relevant, moral and existential questions posed by an era when “the System” failed, and all-American optimism nearly flickered out.
Even amid the buoyant, upbeat period musical numbers that punctuate “Clock,” you sense the voracious, spark-extinguishing shadows hovering. When you hear President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fabled assertion in a radio broadcast that there is “nothing to fear but fear itself,” the words ring unsettlingly hollow.
The nature of “fear itself” is being probed in very different terms at the Donmar Warehouse, home to “Berberian Sound Studio,” a play in which a lone Englishman in a foreign land is forced to confront demons within him he hadn’t even known were there. Though its plot concerns the creation of a favorite current form of escapism — the horror movie — “Berberian Sound Studio” is hardly made for cathartic hoots and shrieks.
Adapted from Peter Strickland’s 2012 film by the writer Joel Horwood and the director Tom Scutt, this compact comic drama never shows the simulated, gore-drenched deaths that are the sine qua non of splatter flicks. Its scares are aural instead of visual, unless you count the increasingly rapt expressions on the face of an inhibited Englishman named Gilderoy, played with uncompromising geekiness by Tom Brooke.
He’s the sheltered, clueless English sound designer who’s been imported by a director in Italy to devise the perfect noise for an unspeakable death by torture called the “bacio indelible,” or indelible kiss. Not much happens in terms of real plot in this production, which is set entirely in the studio of the title (rendered by Anna Yates and Mr. Scutt, best known as an eminent theater designer). And there’s little of the ticking-bomb urgency associated with classic suspense.
Yet as Gilderoy is reluctantly seduced into the dubious pleasures of grand guignol entertainment, “Studio” plants germs that fester disturbingly in the imagination. Why, for example, do audiences revel in the protracted, gruesome torture and mutilation of beautiful women?
And is “the sound of fear,” to quote from the script, really an ear-piercing scream? Or is it, instead, a breathless, endless silence that defies all forms of articulation?
Pinter, of course, famously knew from silence. And it’s appropriate that “A Slight Ache” began life as a radio play, a form in which what does or doesn’t enter the ear is what triggers the imagination. In “Pinter at the Pinter Seven” — expertly directed by Jamie Lloyd and the final offering of a much-lauded season devoted to the dramatist’s short plays — it has been paired with the better-known “The Dumb Waiter.”
Written in 1957, “The Dumb Waiter,” an elliptical account of two hit men in limbo, was a breakthrough for the young Pinter, which has since been parsed, taught and revived many times. This version features two marquee stars: Martin Freeman (Watson in television’s “Sherlock”) and Danny Dyer (soap and action film actor, and notorious caller-out — on the subject of Brexit — of the former Prime Minister David Cameron).
Confined to a bare and squalid room (Soutra Gilmour is the designer), Ben (Mr. Dyer) and Gus (Mr. Freeman) are awaiting instructions to kill from an unseen boss. Mr. Dyer, as the surly top thug, and Mr. Freeman, as his fretful second banana, enjoyably elicit the music-hall rhythms of these squabbling criminals, without milking the laughs. Their skillful thrusting and parrying reminds us of Ben and Gus’s close kinship to Didi and Gogo, the bickering hobos of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
But it’s “A Slight Ache” that’s the true eye opener (and spine tingler) here. This two-character piece, which slyly evolves from a satirical sketch into an existential mystery, was staged to critical yawns at the National Theater in 2008, when it was generally concluded that “Ache” was indeed meant to be heard and not seen.
Mr. Lloyd, however, has sensibly set his version in a radio studio, with his superb cast of two — John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan — speaking into microphones. This professional space turns out to be no safer than the sound studio at the Donmar, as the performers sink deeper and deeper into the roles of Edward and Flora, a husband and wife trying to figure out what to do with that tramp at the end of their garden.
They have separate encounters with this shadowy figure (who is, at one point, mistaken for a bull), and each sees something different in him. Specifically, that would be their respective and elusive pasts, their equally muddled presents and, for the husband, a black hole of a future.
Aside from a too-literal-minded final image, this “Slight Ache” is truly pitch-perfect. Mr. Heffernan and Ms. Whelan’s priceless line readings remind us that Pinter’s ear for the emptiness of social locutions was a match for Noël Coward’s and Joe Orton’s. (“Do excuse me for peering, but is that a glass eye you’re wearing?”)
Ms. Whelan (from “Game of Thrones”) does wonders in bringing a solemn silliness to instincts erotic and maternal. (“Shall I mop your brow with my chiffon?”) And a bespectacled Mr. Heffernan takes his character on a harrowing journey from smug, manly confidence to quivering, mewling desperation.
Early in the play he remarks, regarding the lurking match seller, “I really can’t tolerate anything so absurd, right on my doorstep.” And so he steps forward to confront it, and discovers — like so many figures in Pinter’s plays and in modern drama — that the absurd is existence itself. It is ultimately so deeply, terrifyingly tragic that you might as well laugh.
The American Clock
At the Old Vic Theater, London; oldvictheatre.com
At Wyndham’s Theater, London; delfontmackintosh.co.uk
Berberian Sound Studio
At Donmar Warehouse, London; donmarwarehouse.com
Pinter at the Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter
At the Harold Pinter Theater, London; pinteratthepinter.com
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