Monday 1 April 2013

Old Times

Harold Pinter Theatre

27th February, 2013 with Kristin Scott-Thomas as Kate and Lia Williams as Anna
29th March, 2013 with Kristin Scott-Thomas as Anna and Lia Williams as Kate

Pinter was often guarded about the meaning of his plays and Ian Rickson’s production of Old Times, currently playing at the newly-named Harold Pinter Theatre, remains a mystery to me. Superficially, the play is set in a farmhouse and sees married couple Deeley and Kate and Kate’s former best and only friend Anna coming to visit. By the end of the play, questions are raised over whether Anna is really there or if both Kate and Anna are dead and whether Deeley has just been working through his memories. In the second act, Anna tells Deeley “No two women are the same”. His reply of “That’s true enough” is indicative of one of the interesting things about this production which is that the two female leads alternate roles every four performance, with the casting being decided on Thursday evening by the flip of a coin. Alternating roles was notably done by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production of Frankenstein, however, that was criticised by some as being a mere marketing coup. With Old Times, however, it is meant to be a way of unlocking the play.

I take it as a coincidence that before my first viewing of this play someone walked past me wearing a perfume that brought back memories of one of my first West End theatre trips back in 2006, but the concept of evoking memories and remembering things differently to reality is certainly a main interest in this play. Rufus Sewell brilliantly plays Deeley with great wit and often a sardonic tone, with the sheer number of questions he asks at the start exemplifying how the play could be interpreted as Deeley working though memories in a therapeutic way. There’s a moment in act one where he’s at the front of the stage looking uncomfortable whereas Anna is telling Kate at the back ‘You weren’t dead. Ever. In any way’ when he erupts with ‘Stop that!’ as if disturbed by the past or maybe even confronted with present realities.

Scott Thomas and Williams excel in both roles. I seem to remember Scott Thomas’ Kate being more teary and staring more (like a sphinx, as some critics have commented), whereas Williams brought out an anger and silent resentment in Kate which built nicely until the play’s climax when I remember her being much angrier than Scott Thomas’ portrayal of her. It is Kate’s pauses, almost plain-ness that means we can easily remember Anna more – and maybe even that Deeley remembers her more. For Anna is sexy with her blonde hair and blue blouse and skirt, this sexiness certainly being brought out with Scott Thomas’ portrayal by her delivering her lines with more of a dry humour and having more sexual tension with Deeley, created at one moment by her standing either side of his leg. In Michael Billington’s words:

She blazes: when she stretches back on a bed, Sewell hovers over her as if magnetised. She slinks as she rolls up a sleeve or smooths her shirtwaister over her thighs. She seizes on the humour and makes it dance.

Williams’ Anna, on the other hand, I seem to remember being a bit gladder to be there, perhaps less secure and more excitable. For instance, there’s an enjoyable moment early on when Deeley and Anna sing segments of songs to Kate and whereas Scott-Thomas’ Anna seemed more witty, Williams’ Anna seemed to get lost in the moment more. I could indeed be remembering this wrong as it is over a month since I saw it for the first time and I think there’s another over-riding factor that affected my interpretation of the play.
My problem with the production is that I’m not sure whether it is the two actresses’ different interpretations on the roles that changed the way I saw the play or the fact that my first viewing was of a Wednesday matinee and my second of a Friday evening’s performance. Indeed, there were more laughs in the latter one but maybe that was from Scott Thomas’ performance of Anna and Williams’ performance of Kate being funnier. Either way, I’m glad I saw it twice, simply for the stunning acting of the cast.

There were slight blocking differences in the two performances. I remember Williams’ Anna falling on the floor towards the end, leaving her vulnerable, whereas Scott Thomas didn’t do that. Indeed, her Anna did seem a much stronger woman, interestingly similar to Williams’ Kate being much stronger as well. Also, the positioning at the opening of the play was mirrored with Scott Thomas’ Kate on the Stage Left sofa and Williams’ Anna Stage Right of the window, and then this being swapped for the other casting arrangement. It is also interesting how the three characters seemed to work themselves around the chairs of the set, with them likely being in three different positions at some point, perhaps hinting at how Deeley (who is often sat in the centre) was working through and around certain thoughts. Furthermore, (as I recall from the second viewing) considering Kate seems like the odd one out throughout most of the play, it is touching that Deeley moves away from Anna to go towards Kate at the end, before kissing her thigh and then making his way to his armchair before the final tableau, which is itself marked by a rise and fall of sudden light.

Hildegard Bechtler’s simple design is beautifully dark and enigmatic, with the main ‘natural’ light coming from a wide window at the back, but the room is still dark enough for the need for lights. The red (indicating a more private feel) bedroom of the second act took me as odd as some of the curtains and sideboards seemed painted on, perhaps alluding to how some things aren’t as real as they seem. I also enjoyed the subtle lighting changes of Peter Mumford’s design.

For the my first time seeing the play, I paid £10 for a front row (centre) day seat for the Wednesday matinee and for the second time, I bought my ticket when booking first opened last September (?) for £20 due to an admin error which let me buy a student ticket in the stalls for this price. The error was later changed but I didn’t have to pay any extra.

The play was 80 minutes long with no interval.

On Tuesday 26th March, it was announced that Old Times is up for Best Revival at the Olivier Awards, whereas Kristin Scott Thomas has been nominated for Best Actress. I take it this is for both her portrayals of Kate and Anna. Sadly, it seems that Lia Williams has been snubbed from this category. Maybe Scott Thomas is the one audiences wanted to see more, and I preferred her portrayal of the more arresting character of Anna, but Williams gives matchable performances, with her Kate perhaps outshining her co-star’s. Especially as Cumberbatch and Lee Miller were nominated and won together at last year’s ceremony, it seems ridiculous that Lia Williams (and indeed Rufus Sewell) haven’t got nods in the acting categories.

Old Times plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 6th April, 2013.
The Olivier Awards 2013 are on the 28th April at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

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