Premiered in 1971, Harold Pinter’s Old Times now re-appears at the Donmar Warehouse with all the fractured, fragmentary qualities of a dream that you can only recall brief snatches of. That’s partly the experience of seeing such a cryptic, elliptical play again, but mainly in the play itself that daringly (and sometimes dizzyingly) keeps going in and out of focus, looping in on itself and out again in a style we have come to know as positively Pinteresque.
That otherworldliness is underlined in Roger Michell’s new production, designed by William Dudley, with the action entirely unfolding behind a gauze screen that wraps the stage on all three sides, and mirrored surfaces on the floor and translucent surfaces along the back wall that create multiple reflections of the characters, their constantly fluctuating moods and measured movements.
Such a mirror up to nature, or at least behaviour, was only recently similarly held up scenically on stage in the National’s current production of Marivaux’s The False Servant; nevertheless, it’s a bold and original move here to further enhance the claustrophobic mood by setting it within these confining false walls, and as stunningly lit by Rick Fisher, the shifts in pace and place are sharply defined even if the play and its characters themselves resist pinning down.
Though Old Times seems like a memory play in which a group of characters recall their past relationships to each other, it’s not an ordinary memory play but a play about memory itself: how mutable it can be.
Married couple Kate (Gina McKee) and Deeley (Jeremy Northam), holed up in their remote farmhouse near the sea, are visited by Kate’s old friend and former flatmate Anna (Helen McCrory), who now lives in Sicily, 20 years on from when the two women were both young secretaries in London, and Kate met Deeley for the first time in a deserted cinema showing Odd Man Out. As the basis of their relationships to each other constantly evolves and changes meaning, who’s the odd person out here now? Of course, this being Pinter, there are subtle changes and exchanges of power between them, too.
While it’s tempting to see this play non-naturalistically – a suspicion heightened by the hallucinatory quality of the design that enfolds this production – Pinter himself has claimed, “I’ll tell you one thing about Old Times. It happens. It all happens.” The brilliant trio of actors of Michell’s production play it, moment to moment, for reality and truth. A fascinating tension results that keeps you gripped to the last, inevitably inconclusive, moments.