Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre - Review

Evening Standard, 1 February 2013
By Henry Hitchings

This is a classy revival of a cryptic Harold Pinter play dating from the early Seventies. Itís lit up by potent, detailed performances. But it is undeniably strange, and after two viewings of this production I still canít be sure of its meaning.

The gimmick in Ian Ricksonís staging is that Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternate in the two female roles. Rufus Sewell is a constant as Deeley, a combative yet often inert man who claims to be a film director.

He is married to Kate, who is reflective and remote. They welcome her more exuberant friend Anna at their converted coastal farmhouse. Itís her first visit in twenty years. The women once shared a flat in London, and their reminiscences are perhaps Pinterís most affectionate tribute to the city that was his home.

As Deeley and Anna fight for control of Kate, we wrestle with the ambiguities of a play in which nothing is guaranteed. Could Anna be a ghost or a fantasy? Are Anna and Kate in fact two sides of the same person? Are all three characters dead?

This may sound dry or demented, and I certainly have reservations about the play, which feels a bit like an ingenious exercise designed to stretch actors. Yet amid the posturing and verbal games there are interesting ideas about memory and the way the present shapes our sense of the past.

Scott Thomas is a glacial Kate, whereas Williams makes her more creepily elusive. As Anna, Williams is jaunty and a gossip; Scott Thomas imbues the part with a more refined humour. Meanwhile Sewell strikes me as miscast in a role that once belonged to Colin Blakely and Michael Gambon. He never exudes menace. But his performance is full of telling nuances, as his manner switches from facetious flirting to deviousness.

Seeing the two versions is quite illuminating. It shows how different actors pick different paths through a role. But youíd have to be a huge fan of Pinter and the performers to want to splash out on both.

I donít buy the line that comparisons are odious, so Iíll say that for my money the production works better when Scott Thomas is Anna and Williams plays Kate - which is the reverse of what I expected. This way round, it has a raw intensity and haunting mystery which the other permutation doesnít achieve.

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