The first Pinter piece to play in the recently renamed Harold Pinter Theatre is, appropriately, enigmatic almost to the point of parody. In Old Times (1971) a man and two women meet in a remote farmhouse and reminisce, but the truth of their situation remains elusive to the end. It’s a fascinating, if rather arid, meditation on memory, narrative and identity and it is played with the delicacy of a piece of chamber music in Ian Rickson’s beautifully modulated production. Rickson and his superb cast reveal that this is a play about writing and acting as well as anything else: meaning can be created or extinguished through interpretation.
To emphasise the point, the cast switch roles for different performances of the play. Rufus Sewell remains as Deeley, the husband, but Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternate as Kate, his quiet brunette wife, and Anna, the blonde visitor, who apparently has an exotic life in Sicily and a shared past with Kate. It’s not necessary – and not practical for most people – to see both, but they do differ subtly and the fact that both are possible adds to the enigmatic nature of the piece.
The action of the play lies not in incident, but in the manipulation of power. Deeley and Anna recount their contrasting memories of Kate, vying for ownership of the past, possession of Kate and control of the room. At face value, the play depicts the impact of an old friend’s arrival on a shaky marriage, the jealousy and erotic fascination between the friend and husband, the intimacies and resentments recalled by memory. But countless other possibilities float in: that Kate and Anna are two sides of the same woman; that Anna represents a road not taken for each spouse; that one, or all, of the characters is dead.
The truth slips with every moment and every choice. Scott Thomas makes Kate’s silence inscrutable, aloof and sphinx-like; Williams in the same role seems more cowed and mouse-like. Williams’ Anna is brittle; Scott Thomas’s Anna more flirtatious. Sewell’s Deeley suggests deep insecurity behind his teasing, confident exterior and makes you wonder whether the whole scenario is in his mind. It’s a very clever piece about perception, dramatising the interface between memory, desire and reality. Its limitation is that the lack of firm context keeps its characters remote and their predicament unmoving. But this rich staging suggests that behind all the mind-games lies the bleak terror of loneliness.