Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Theatre review: Old Times

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Old Times is having a lengthy preview period and doesn't invite the official critics in for another week.

A Harold Pinter play gets staged at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the first time since it was renamed in his memory, Ian Rickson directing Kristin Scott Thomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams in 1971's Old Times. Kate (Scott Thomas) is waiting, with what looks like quite a lot of apprehension, for the arrival of an old friend: She used to share a flat with Anna (Williams,) describing her as her best and only friend, but hasn't seen her in 20 years. Kate's film director husband Deeley (Sewell) has apparently never met Anna before, but seems more enthusiastic about her return than his wife does. In two scenes, the three reminisce about earlier days and how Kate and Deeley met, but not only do their memories start to look conflicting and unreliable, but it seems both Kate and Deeley have an intimate physical history with Anna they'd previously kept to themselves.

Although this is the casting we saw tonight, in this production Scott Thomas and Williams alternate their roles, with most nights' casting scheduled in advance, but a handful of performances to be decided by the toss of a coin just before curtain-up. As Christopher (my most Pinter-literate friend but previously unfamiliar with Old Times) suggested, this sharing of roles may be a nod to the somewhat ambiguous status of the women. There are three actors on stage, but how many characters, exactly, are in the scene? I have a theory but I'll put it in a postscript because of spoilers - have a look at the bottom of the review if you've seen the play and if you care what my interpretation is.

There's a familiar sense of something being eerily out of the ordinary although unusually for Pinter this tips over into something more overtly surreal for the closing moments. Hildegard Bechtler's typically solid set gives a queasy green tinge to the living room of the first scene, a womb-like red to the second, and the actors deal impressively with how constantly their characters' mental states seem to shift, in keeping with the questionable nature of exactly when and where (and if) various snippets of conversation happen. A bit of a strange experience, this one; although I didn't enjoy it at the time as much as other Pinter plays I've seen, it wasn't one I actively disliked, certainly nowhere near the wilfully difficult Moonlight; and Old Times goes by at a surprising pace as well. But following a quick conversation with Christopher on the way to the station and then mulling it over a bit more on the train home, it's been intriguing to try and put the play's puzzle together, and I suspect this might be one that continues to be rewarding the more I think about it.

Old Times by Harold Pinter is booking until the 6th of April at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

PS: I'd be a fool to suggest I fully understood any Pinter play, he's a bit too multi-layered, probably even for people who've studied him, let alone someone like me who never did (I assume he was out of favour at the time I did my degree as it seems amazing that we never even touched upon him in any of my courses.) But my theory about Old Times is this (SPOILERS, obvs.)

Not only is Anna not really there, she never was. She was a multiple personality of Kate's, the bubbly and sexually confident alternate persona of the shy girl. When Deeley first met Kate she was alone in the cinema; Anna later says she was there as well. Both are actually true. Kate's relationship with Deeley made her no longer need Anna, and she's been repressed in Kate's subconscious for the last 20 years. With Deeley's job keeping him away from home for long periods of time, and their relationship perhaps not being quite as strong as it once was, Anna is starting to resurface. Deeley isn't lying at the start about never having met Anna before; he just doesn't realise until she comes back and he interacts with her, that some of his earliest meetings with Kate were in fact with the "Anna" personality, whom he now recognises.

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