Review Round-up: Pinter's 'haunting' Old Times
In Pinter's darkly erotic drama, Kate and her husband Deeley are visited in their converted farmhouse home by Kate's old college roommate Anna, sparking off a war in which memories – and different versions of the past – are the weapons.
Designed by Hildegard Bechtler, the Old Times runs until 6 April 2013.
Ian Rickson's production is played fast and true, and without an interval, pressing all the right buttons and a few unexpected ones, with a delightful potpourri of period songs, references to Carol Reed's film noir Odd Man Out and curious comic mis-emphases... But what's so compelling about the play is that hard detail is always bumping up against the dreaminess: in Pinter's idiomatic language, in the accounts of the Edgware Road philosophers, the Maida Vale gang, the well-constructed jokes... Rickson's production charts all these shifting tonal alliances with exquisite good taste, and right at the end you are led to believe, or you can allow yourself to think you have been led to believe, that you have been watching ghosts. The past, for these people, is another country, as our lives may seem to be illusions even as we exist.
...If you're just going to see Old Times once, there's no need to worry about the high concept role switching gubbins: the production's unsettling tidal ebb of emotional powerplay is equally effective with both set ups of actresses. However, if you feel like ponying up twice, you'll get your money’s worth: Williams offers more naturalistic takes, a shy Kate and a gregarious Anna; Scott Thomas is edgier and more stylized, her Kate haughty and her Anna dotty. All four readings are brilliantly realized and justified; Scott Thomas as Kate and Williams as Anna offers a more claustrophobic, nerve-wracking 80 minutes; the other way round is funnier and easier going; both are hauntingly brilliant. Old Times bears up to a multitude of interpretations; it also defies them all.
It is surely the most impenetrable of his plays: 90 minutes of bafflement for me, I'm afraid, though Pinter addicts may like it... The acting may be authentically Pinteresque, but the show bored me rigid. I found myself dwelling on how Miss Scott Thomas has the inexpressive brow of football commentator Alan Hansen... The producers are hoping that some theatregoers will go twice to catch the two actresses in each role. It sounds an ingenious sales wheeze, but once was quite enough for me.
...The result, in Ian Rickson's brilliantly pellucid production, is fascinating. It shows how two actors can take wildly different routes to the same destination and how every line is susceptible to multiple readings... If Scott Thomas proceeds by stealth and Williams by frontal assault, both are superb and offer the subtlest variations on single lines. But one thing is common to both versions: the total demolition of Deeley's sense of security. And Sewell charts that excellently by starting the play on a note of Coward-like insouciance... Although Sewell sounds vocally stretched during the exchanges of 1930s popular song, he captures every phase of Deeley's downfall in the minutest detail... It is both a beautifully clear production and one which, through the alternate casting, adds to the bottomless mystery of Pinter's play.
This is a classy revival... It's lit up by potent, detailed performances. But it is undeniably strange, and after two viewings of this production I still can’t be sure of its meaning... Scott Thomas is a glacial Kate, whereas Williams makes her more creepily elusive. As Anna, Williams is jaunty and a gossip; Scott Thomas imbues the part with a more refined humour. Meanwhile Sewell strikes me as miscast in a role that once belonged to Colin Blakely and Michael Gambon. He never exudes menace... Seeing the two versions is quite illuminating. It shows how different actors pick different paths through a role. But you’d have to be a huge fan of Pinter and the performers to want to splash out on both.
...The performances were accomplished, the sudden changes in mood from edgy humour to glimpses of grief and emotional violence well caught. But it all struck me as a touch mechanical, though Kristin Scott Thomas brings both beauty and a sense of mystery to the enigmatic wife... The banter that turns increasingly nasty between Sewell and Thomas really struck sparks, but even more remarkable was Lia Williams as the wife. She plays the character not with the usual passivity, but with the neurotic intensity of a clinically depressed woman staring into a void as she realises that her relationships with both her husband and her old friend are dead to her.
It looks like a wheeze at first, a publicist's gamble to get people to pay twice for the same evening. Yet the double casting of Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams, alternating the roles of wife and interloping stranger, pays dividends in one of Pinter's most mysterious plays. It's worth seeing both versions of Old Times, not because doing so clears up the enigma: rather the reverse, it teases out extra possibilities and questions. It also shows two actresses at their peak. Who would have known that Kristin Scott Thomas had so much comedy in her? Who has seen Lia Williams so tart?... It's when Williams is the wife – clenched, resentful, quick-tongued, brimming with secret power – and Scott Thomas her ambiguous friend that the play becomes truly arresting.
- Claire Mitchell