Old Times – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

The Londonist, 8 February 2013
Thanks, GE2

In 2011 at the same theatre (then named The Comedy), Ian Rickson directed what many regard as the definitive version of Pinter’s 1978 play 'Betrayal', which depicted a love triangle of two men and a woman. Now he returns with the same leading actor to direct this three-hander for two women and a man, so expectations were high.

This play dates from 1971 and is set in the country home of Deeley, a film-maker, and his wife Kate. The third character is Anna, who had been Kate’s room-mate 20 years earlier. The three recollect events from the past which may have really happened, may have been distorted by time or may have been invented. We are never told. Kate is brunette, brooding and introverted, Anna is blond, flamboyant and outgoing. Do they represent two sides of the same woman? Well, probably, but this is too simplistic to be the complete answer and Pinter never lets us off so lightly. He asks us to ponder on how our present lives can be shaped by what we think may have happened in the past just as much as by what actually happened and on how the people that we once were inhabit us as much as the people that we later became.

The art of acting Pinter lies in an understanding of what is meant but not always written. In 'Betrayal', the character of Emma is defined by her duplicity and, when playing her in Rickson’s production, Kristin Scott Thomas frequently needed to speak a line whilst conveying to the audience that her character is thinking the exact opposite. In achieving this so successfully, she marked herself as a consummate actor of Pinter. Her mature beauty and natural elegance can mask an inner turmoil that is revealed only by the slightest changes in body language, maybe no more than a flicker or a grimace, but, without needing words, she is able to project the truth within of the character that the writer has created.

In this play, the characters are not deceiving others so much as themselves as they recall past events and emotions, struggling to distinguish what is real and what is not and it takes an actor with Scott Thomas’s skills to convey this to an audience. She is matched here more than adequately by Lia Williams. The two are alternating the roles of Kate and Anna and this reviewer saw Scott Thomas as Anna and Williams as Kate. Rufus Sewell is also superb as Deeley, veering between playfulness and exasperated rage.

The production values are high. Hildegard Bechtler’s sparsely furnished but richly coloured sets and Peter Mumford’s lighting contribute to the sombre and reflective atmosphere that prevails throughout as does Stephen Warbeck’s haunting piano music, particularly in the wordless closing moments.

As always with Pinter, many questions are posed but straightforward answers are never given. Running for just 80 minutes without an interval, this play is enigmatic, perhaps even baffling, but it will linger in the mind long after the curtain falls. Maybe this production of the play will be talked of 20 years hence as the one that could never be bettered and maybe such recollections will be true.

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