Review: Old Times, Harold Pinter

“If you have only one of something, you can’t say it’s the best of anything”

I do try to have willpower, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Having decided that I wouldn’t be going to see the revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, the announcement of Kristin Scott Thomas’ Olivier nomination crumbled my resolve and sure enough, I made enquiries into finding someone who would do me the kindness of day-seating. Part of the reason for not going was that I knew that if I had seen it once, I would want to see it a second time as Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternated the two female roles of Kate and Anna throughout the run and I do like to complete a set.

In the end, I was lucky and able to call in on some favours which meant I did get to see it two times in the last couple of weeks and from the vantage point of the front row which made it worthwhile as the quality of the acting was hypnotically good, from both actresses and also from Rufus Sewell’s Deeley. But Pinter has always been a playwright whose charms have eluded me and Old Times is as gnomic an example of his work as any and though I was glad to have been able to take in both iterations of the cast, I can’t say that it really added a huge amount to my understanding (or lack thereof) of the play.

In their coastal farmhouse, husband and wife Deeley and Kate are chatting about the imminent arrival of her old friend Anna, but she hasn’t seen her for 20 years and he doesn’t recall her at all. What follows is a series of reminiscences as Deeley and Anna compete to remember Kate with the greatest degree of accuracy, fighting over details of trips to London exhibitions and the cinema and competing over levels of intimacy. Fighting over the past is their way of laying claim to the extremely passive Kate but as the battles of the play progress, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing is in fact that clear.

The ambivalence that characterises so much of Pinter’s writing is in full force here but rather being entirely wilfully obtuse, the possibilities it opened up seemed intriguing to me in a way which was rather fascinating, both to discuss in the pub afterwards and also again when watching the second viewing. We’re never sure exactly who or what is real – they might all be dead, Anna might be the long-suppressed split personality of Kate, or she might be a fantasy figure dreamed up by the couple. So little is given away though that any interpretation that you care to spin onto Ian Rickson’s production would fit, and no-one could argue otherwise. 

Sewell’s presence onstage remains constant in both versions, a pugnacious presence of decreasing certainty and dissolving masculinity and it was genuinely interesting to see how Lia Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas compared and contrasted in their different takes on the two women. Out of the two, I preferred Scott Thomas’ seductively absorbing take on Anna and Williams’ languorous enigma as Kate – both actresses seemed to feel more comfortable this way round and thus pulling out more interesting interpretations. (Though as this was the first way round I saw them, I wonder how much that was a factor.)

I still can’t say that Pinter is a playwright I enjoy but I do seem to be edging closer to an appreciation for what he was trying to achieve – it certainly helps when the casts are of such quality and the seats are so good and so cheap. And on a last note, it does seem remarkably churlish of the Olivier judges to nominate one and not the other of this pair of fine performers as I am sure the exercise of cross-casting will have informed both their work in a way which is difficult to untangle. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 6th April

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