Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Harold Pinter's Old Times

Last night, I had the privilege of watching two actresses at the height of their powers. Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams mesmerise the audience in Ian Rickson’s pellucid production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. They play the roles of a wife and stranger with such technical purity and emotional sincerity that their performances acquire a balletic quality. This is acting in its most concentrated and distilled form – these actresses are not play acting imaginary characters, rather, they are embracing the opaque quality of what it is to be alive and to love.

The play is based around a ménage a trois, a triangular relationship that shape shifts when the balance of power tips one way or another. Deeley (Rufus Sewell), a successful film director, is the man in the middle. He and his wife, Kate (Lia Williams) are staying in a converted farmhouse when, Anna (Kristin Scott Thomas), one of Kate’s old friend comes to stay. Deeley and Anna both want to claim the introverted Kate as their possession. They vye for her affections. They each claim a special closeness to her. They out manoeuvre and trump each other as they attempt to win the trophy of Kate’s exclusive commitment. But behind their efforts is something creepy and relationally rancid.

Pinter’s play is interested in how our memory of past events shapes and informs the way we live in the present. We always approach the people we know with a store of memories of who they were at different times in the past. Yet, these memories are plastic and unreliable. We manipulate and edit our memories to suit our psychological needs. We never experience memory in a neutral way. “I remember things that may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place,” writes Pinter. The forty-year old characters in the play look back to the bars, clubs and art galleries of their youth as a way of making sense of their present environment. The memories of youthful flirtation and desire are manipulated to excuse the silent terrors of ageing. In the end, Deeley is defeated by his past. He becomes a sobbing wreck before the knowledge of who he was and what he has become. Old Times exposes how memory and power act as an invisible web to so many of our adult relationships

Kristin Scott Thomas is the perfect Pinter temptress. She captures the potent sensuality that some middle aged women possess. They are charged with an eroticism that comes from experience and an unshakeable self-confidence. Kristin Scott Thomas slinks and smooths and stretches like something feline. Yet, we know she also can also flash her claws. Lia Williams, on the other hand, is a master class in buttoned up, corseted rage. She has all the power in this triangular relationship and knows it. But the power is contained, nuclear, and only leaks as she finally turns on Anna and coldly admits, “I remember you. I remember you dead.”

Two great actresses. One actor, admirably holding his own. 80 minutes of gripping, thought provoking theatre. A mysterious Pinter play. Oh and I’ll be back to see if it was as good as I remember it to be.

Old Times by Harold Pinter at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

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