Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, Review
The haunting stage poetry of memory and desire in Harold Pinter's Old Times – starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Rufus Sewell – worked its spell at the Harold Pinter Theatre for Charles Spencer.
The Telegraph, 1 February 2013
After more than 30 years of reviewing his work I still find myself in two minds about Harold Pinter – not a comfortable position for a critic.
On the one hand I greatly admire his spare, resonant language, and the fact that when you are watching a Pinter play you always feel that it couldn’t possibly have been written by anyone else, except possibly that brilliant parodist, Craig Brown.
But sometimes I grow impatient of Pinter’s technique of creating an aura of mystery by the simple tactic of withholding information most writers would consider it essential to impart, and by the lack of generosity of his view of human relationships. It has been well said that if you took the bullying out of Pinter’s plays, there would be remarkably little left.
This divided response struck me anew watching Ian Rickson’s new production of 'Old Times' (1971) the first Pinter play to be staged at the former Comedy Theatre since it was renamed in his honour. Two actresses, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams, are alternating in the roles of Kate and Anna, with Rufus Sewell playing Kate’s husband, Deeley, and critics were invited to see the production twice so we could see the actresses in both parts.
What was astonishing was that my response to the play was radically different on each occasion. At the first performance I caught, with Kristin Scott Thomas playing Deeley’s withdrawn wife who spends much of the play as a silent observer while her husband and her best friend bicker over who knows her most intimately, I was often bored – and this is normally my second favourite Pinter play after his great study of an adulterous affair, 'Betrayal'
The use of selective and possibly invented memory as a weapon, and the question of what did or didn’t happen between these three characters 20 years earlier felt stale and over familiar, a riddle that was never going to yield its answer. The performances were accomplished, the sudden changes in mood from edgy humour to glimpses of grief and emotional violence well caught. But it all struck me as a touch mechanical, though Kristin Scott Thomas brings both beauty and a sense of mystery to the enigmatic wife.
Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood for Pinter because two days later the play’s haunting stage poetry of memory and desire suddenly worked its spell. The banter that turns increasingly nasty between Sewell and Thomas really struck sparks, but even more remarkable was Lia Williams as the wife. She plays the character not with the usual passivity, but with the neurotic intensity of a clinically depressed woman staring into a void as she realises that her relationships with both her husband and her old friend are dead to her. The coup de grace at the end is devastating.
Rickson directs with care and subtlety, with haunting piano music by Stephen Warbeck and designs by Hildegard Bechtler that make the converted farmhouse where the action takes resemble one of those bleak interiors painted by Edward Hopper, conjuring a world of loneliness in which terrible things might happen.