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A CurtainUp London Review
Whenever I see a Pinter play, I think back to his marriage to the stellar and luminous actress, Vivien Merchant. She was his wife when he was writing what are regarded by many as his great plays and who took many of his female parts to the stage, including the part of Anna in this 1971 play. I have seen Lia Williams in Pinter before, and along with Gina McKee, she has expertise in that calm, enigmatic and unsettling way of taking on a Pinter role and making it memorable.
Old Times appears to be about three people reminiscing on their past. Deeley may not have known Anna before he married Kate but in this 90 minute play they give competing versions of events. At first we think we are watching an onlooker in the part of the wife Kate, with Anna’s personality plus animated character and flirtatious manner dominating. We wait for Deeley and Anna to start an affair. But it doesn’t happen. With Kate’s Zen approach of withdrawing from the contest, the game turns and becomes a competition for her, for the affection and past memories of the passive Kate. At one point Deeley starts singing snatches of old romantic songs of the 30s and 40s and Anna competes with her own amateur rendering of Cole Porter.
The play opens with Deeley and Kate discussing how Anna stole her underwear. Anna is onstage, not lit but in shadow, and looking out of the window and with her back to us and not moving. What follows shows Kirstin Scott Tomas bubbly andvivacious while Kate in a quiet moment pours the coffee very slowly from a white jug into white cups and saucers, deliberately adding cream and sugar and stirring it precisely in one of those attention grabbing moments that is described as “Pinteresque.” When Anna says to Deeley, “You have a lovely casserole . . . I mean wife”, we know the embarrassing “mistake” speaks volumes.
From there on the play becomes a competition between Deeley and Anna for their claim in memories of Kate. Deeley tells us how he met Kate at the film Odd Man Out. Anna recalls Kate taking a bath and tries to trump Deeley’s film memory. Anna and Deeley recall their versions of meeting at a pub. As she comes back in her green dressing gown from her bath, Kate is asked to adjudicate the versions of their past. Her reply will be cataclysmic.
Peter Mumford’s lighting sees the light from the window with its glimpses of the sea but at the scene change all the colour is taken out of the stage and it becomes a beautifully atmospheric, monochrome photograph of the beach and the sea until we have moved from the sofas of the living room to the twin beds askew in the bedroom. It is in the bedroom when Kate is taking a bath that Anna sits on the bed next to Deeley and drapes herself back onto the bed with her legs hanging over the edge. Hildegarde Bechtler’s sets are dictated by the playwright and can never be more than background to the era of the play. This country farmhouse doesn’t have the warmth we would associate with a country home.
Although Pinter has many fans, I do not count myself in their number. However, I do recognise that Ian Rickson’s production is of the very best and the performances here are outstanding and captivating. Rufus Sewell as Deeley becomes more unsettled, Kristin Scott Thomas’ gushing starts to become desperate and Lia Williams quietly regains control through destruction.
I never really warm to any of Pinter’s flawed characters but here I almost liked them. And . . . which version did those who had seen both, prefer? This one! Details are on the website below as to who will be playing which role. .
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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