The Provocations of Harold Pinter

New York Times, 5 February 2013
By Matt Wolf
Thanks, Rueful

Have you ever awakened from a dream wanting to replay events afresh? That’s just the start of the appeal in theatrical terms of the West End revival of “Old Times,” the Harold Pinter play that on this occasion is being presented with its two exemplary actresses, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams, swapping roles.

“Old Times” is the first Pinter play to appear at this particular address since the building was renamed in October 2011 for the onetime Nobel laureate. In its former guise as the Comedy Theatre, the playhouse put on many a Pinter production, a summer 2011 revival of “Betrayal,” starring Ms. Scott Thomas, among them.

But whether viewed in isolation or as part of an ad hoc parade of a seminal dramatist’s spread of work, the director Ian Rickson’s take on a transfixing if shadowy 1971 play clarifies anew the gauzy hinterland of memory. I doubt I’m the only one already searching for an excuse to see it a third time, though I don’t see the play’s lone (and terrific) actor, a commandingly gravelly Rufus Sewell, in this context getting to play anyone else’s part. The production runs through April 6.

The casting conceit is by no means new. Two years ago, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternated the leading roles in “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre and came away with an Olivier Award for their efforts, and the classical canon is rife with assignments in which various performers have traded off parts throughout a run — Gielgud and Olivier, for instance, as Romeo and Mercutio near the start of their careers.

The rewards here extend well beyond an opportunity to bask twice over in two of the country’s most translucent actresses, a pairing that on the basis of skin tone alone makes this distaff duo an apt fit for the porous landscape of Pinter’s cunning, sexy, ultimately highly disturbing play.

Are we watching two versions of the same self? That’s an interpretation of the psychodynamic of a play that finds a married couple, Kate and Deeley, visited at their coastal farmhouse by Anna, Kate’s best friend — perhaps even her only friend — from 20 years before. But as the 80 minutes (no intermission) proceed to a wordless climax that achieves a baleful power, all the facts of the piece are put up for grabs.

No sooner has Deeley expressed a “categorical position” before it is quickly subject to revision, and there are those who regard the play as Pinter’s equivalent “Huis Clos” (“No Exit”), the Jean-Paul Sartre play about two women and a man glimpsed in their own infernal afterlife. That assessment, in turn, tallies with Kate’s comment early on that the others “talk of me as if I were dead,” and Peter Mumford’s ravishing lighting casts a spectral glow culminating in the sudden blinding illumination indicated in the script.

Those seeking precise explication won’t get much of an assist from the playwright. “I can sum up none of my plays,” Pinter once remarked. “I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.”

The description in this instance allows for a delicious game of compare-and-contrast, with the casting pointing up differing approaches to the same demands. Ms. Scott Thomas’s Kate emits the charismatic force field that the onetime Oscar nominee (1996’s “The English Patient”) has brought to her London stage tasks to date, of which there have been five so far, three in conjunction with Mr. Rickson. But give Ms. Williams the same role and the often-silent wife gives off the very separate, and real, suggestion of pain, as if this intrusion from the past into her present has brought with it a trauma almost too troubling to contemplate.

As the giddily flamboyant Anna, Ms. Scott Thomas is more actressy than is her norm, and there are moments in that configuration where she and Mr. Sewell sound as if they are ready to sail off into the realm of Noel Coward. (That’s not altogether inappropriate, given the mordant wit to a verbal landscape in which Anna praises Deeley’s “casserole” when she in fact intends to say the word “wife.”)

In the same role, Ms. Williams suggests a good-time girl feasting on recollections of an, um, lively past scarcely less “volcanic” than the island on which she says she now lives. And when she and Kate face off near the end, the encounter sends Ms. Williams’s Anna flying backward on to the stage floor, whereas Ms. Scott Thomas’s Anna at the same moment remains upright.

Mr. Sewell, in turn, lends a welcome bonhomie to the most obvious odd man out in a play that makes much of the 1947 film of the same name, though it’s characteristic of the strategies of their author that each of the characters registers an exclusion from the other two in his or her own way. Whether pondering words like “lest” or remarking upon his home’s prevailing silence, Mr. Sewell gives off the air of the host at a party from which Deeley risks being cut out; the performance, by turns ferocious and startlingly fragile, represents a smashing return for the actor to the London stage for the first time in nearly seven years.

Mr. Sewell is presumably having fun clocking when his co-stars are wigged and when they are not and noticing differences in costuming that would seem to extend to the two Kates more than the two Annas. What’s immediately clear is that both women are fully up to a task that has been laid out on the show’s Web site, allowing patrons to pick and choose their preferred casting.

The approach assumes a play that can withstand such scrutiny. That was a problem with “Frankenstein,” once one realized that the star performances were of considerably more interest than most everything else about the evening, apart from the set.

No such problems here. Hildegard Bechtler’s shimmering, high-walled scenery further refines the painterliness that the same designer brought last year to “Scenes From an Execution,” a play about art and artists at the National Theatre; the richness of the red in the play’s second half signals a provocation all its own as the talk turns to drying Kate off after her bath: “You can supervise the whole thing,” Deeley tells Anna. “And give me some hot tips while you’re at it.”

But the attendant sensuality, hugely in evidence throughout this of all Pinter plays, is amended by an ending that pulls the trio apart, as if to suggest that all their intimacies no longer apply.

“Do men ripple too?” Deeley at one point asks. Far be it from me to comment on that, but this production of this play absolutely does.

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