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Rufus Sewell and Kristin Scott Thomas. Photo by Simon Annand
Rufus Sewell and Kristin Scott Thomas in Old Times. Photo © Simon Annand.
Old Times
By Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN
Until April 6, 2013
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell

In this classy revival of one of Pinter’s most cryptic plays, directed by Ian Rickson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternate the female roles of Kate and Anna, with Rufus Sewell as Kate’s possessive husband Deeley. The shimmering star wattage they bring certainly enlivens a difficult text.

In the play, Pinter explores how we make or remake memory in the context of a triangular relationship between the married couple and the wife’s best friend, Anna. Pinter once said that “What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism”, and certainly here it can be read in a number of ways.

Running 80 minutes without an interval, Hildegard Bechtler’s bleak-chic set and perfectly judged costumes of autumnal velvets and comfy chords transport us back to the early seventies. With three characters trapped in a room tormenting each other, it also brings to mind middle-period Bergman but, sadly, minus the chilling effect of his painterly cinematography.

Being short, it doesn’t require much exertion which is why, no doubt, both stars and commercial producers love it, but its oblique hipness does leave the audience somewhat emotionally short changed, unlike in his greater plays.

The stars redeem it with their sheer humanity, and the night I saw it Scott Thomas was a revelation as Anna. How could Williams possibly be better in that role and what, apart from greed, is the point in such a gimmick? Are people really going to go and see it twice, at those prices?

Released from Scott Thomas’ default theater mode of jaded ennui, which got her through two recent Chekhov triumphs in the West End, it was a joy to witness this new side of her. Preposterously beautiful, she is gloriously flirty and coquettish here and she should have such fun more often. Her seduction scenes with Rufus are completely electric, and he too does wonders in fleshing out a difficult role, wisely eschewing the traditional surly menace of this part for a more buoyant playfulness. He brings a romantic leading man quality to the role, which is of another era.

Williams, a Pinter veteran, also makes the challenging part of Kate totally compelling. Is she real? Are she and Anna the same woman? Did she kill Anna? Pinter is great on the selectivity of memory and with a pleasing symmetry the characters subvert and challenge each other’s recollections of two signature moments in their collective past – a visit to a cinema and meeting at a house party where Deeley first eyed-up Anna. “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place”, says Kate.

Pinter’s sparse use of language, where he strips it back to its elemental properties and has characters using it as a weapon, is much in evidence here. As a woman I heard afterwards, going up the stairs ahead of me, proclaimed to her companion: “…yes, very Pinteresque”.


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