Ah Yes, I Remember It Well
A Mysterious Play About the Tricks of Memory Returns to London
The Economist, 9 February 2013
Harold Pinter knew his way around silence. There is something dangerous about quiet on stage, as if it is a gap, an emptiness, a mistake. But Pinter, an English playwright who died in 2008, understood these moments to be the essence of drama, charged and full of reckoning. Speech, on the other hand, was “a constant stratagem to cover nakedness”, he once wrote. In his work the lapses in dialogue can yawn on awkwardly, even oppressively, but they tend to be more expressive than the words.
“Old Times”, a play that premiered in 1971, is full of this electric silence. (Pinter ensured as much, writing “pause” after most lines in the script; though he later rued that this enabled melodrama in the wrong hands.) In a new production at the recently renamed Harold Pinter Theatre in London, directed by the gifted Ian Rickson, the work feels as vital as ever.
At a remote farmhouse on the English seaside, Anna pays an unexpected visit to Kate and her husband Deeley, seemingly to reminisce about all of those adventures they shared in London 20 years ago. But memory can be a funny thing, full of selfish needs and manipulative fictions. These three figures seem to know each other intimately, but it is not clear what history they actually share. Their recollections overlap but also confuse and compete with each other. To heighten the sense that this is a play about the power and frailty of perception, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams switch roles for different performances, though Rufus Sewell stays anchored as Deeley.
“What silence!” declares Anna. “Is it always as silent?” She has just finished rhapsodising about their young, romantic lives in the big city (“Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember?”), only to be greeted by an inhospitable wall of quiet. Anna’s memories are so colourful, so vivacious, but the Kate she describes is nothing like the quietly intense woman on stage. Undeterred, Anna manically lobs yet more memories as if they are weapons. Kate consistently tries to perch on the sofa behind her husband, turning him into a shield. Deeley, meanwhile, is both spectator and provocateur, stoking the evening with his own memories. As the lone man in the room, he enjoys a unique power. He clings to it, sensing that he is always on the verge of being the odd one out.
This is a strange play, puzzling and haunting. It works as well as it does thanks not only to Pinter’s text, but also to superb interpretation on stage. Mr Sewell stomps and sputters as the charismatic and slightly insecure Deeley, though he might be a touch too handsome—his face too chiselled—for the role (Pinter himself played the part in an American production in the 1980s). Ms Williams makes for a nervously effervescent Anna. But it is Ms Scott Thomas who steals the show. Her enormous hooded grey eyes shine and then brood; the drama ricochets off her impressive cheekbones. In either role, she is compelling enough to command even the small gestures, such as when she picks at her toes after a bath, or languorously drapes a foot over a bed. Her silence, far from empty, is seductive and mysterious.