Old Times at Harold Pinter Theatre
Exeunt Magazine, February 2013
In Ian Rickson’s electrically charged production of Harold Pinter’s enigmatic play, first staged in 1971 and now at the theatre that bears his name, every strained laugh is another tear in the chafing social fabric that binds its central three characters together in the purgatory of their past. Long before the final scene, which twists everything on its head, Pinter has pulled apart the foundations of their identities.
Alongside Rufus Sewell as the overbearing Deeley, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams switch between his wife, Kate, and her long-absent friend, Anna, on alternate nights. This sounds gimmicky, but makes perfect sense in the context of a play in which questions of personality are so vexed and its boundaries so hauntingly porous.
From the outset, Kate (played by Lia Williams when I saw the play) – pale, thin and quiet – is the battleground on which Deeley and Anna pitch up their tents and wage war with each other over coffee and brandy in a dingy front room filled with an air of neglect. As Deeley mockingly interrogates Kate about the soon-to-arrive Anna, her ‘only’ friend as a young woman, he is already tightening the screws that bind her to him.
Sewell is brilliantly awful as the bullying Deeley, wielding his character’s self-regarding humour like a cudgel when the two women’s prior relationship threatens the story of his importance in Kate’s life. A handful of memories – a meeting in a deserted cinema, a glimpse of stocking at a party, a strange man bending over a bed – become explosively totemic.
Pinter’s shard-like writing slashes into social niceties with surgical precision and merciless wit, as a shrill Anna confuses ‘casserole’ with ‘wife’ and competes with Deeley over song lyrics while Kate sits in uneasy silence. Rickson ratchets up the tension by having each character move restlessly between sofas and chairs: a power play of endlessly reconfigured groupings and poses.
Scott Thomas imbues Anna with a frantic girlishness; taut, brittle and looking like a faded print of someone who might never have existed as she clings to Kate and their flat-sharing days. When they are alone, she and Sewell rivetingly evoke the intertwined disgust and intimacy that comes with the revelation of their characters’ (seeming) secret history together.
The past in this play is a place of penetrated spaces, a voyeuristic territory filled with memories that leave their mark like grubby fingerprints; but if we are witness to a crime scene, who is the perpetrator? As images recur and loop in dream-like ways, Pinter blurs the boundaries between his characters in a haunting fashion.
And in the middle of everything is Lia Williams’ Kate – the seemingly absent centre of this existential domestic drama. It’s a difficult role to play, but her character’s withdrawal is her power and Williams’ deadened expression is chilling as Kate reveals the limitless emptiness inside her that has swallowed up everything around her.
As Rickson’s perfectly judged production ends on a desolate tableau, the exaggerated proportions of the set reflect the strange and elusive ghost story that Old Times has become. But the real horror of these desperate, broken and sometimes vile characters is that, whoever they are, they don’t feel nearly otherworldly enough for comfort.