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Harold Pinter once stated in an interview that his plays all deal with “the weasel under the liquor cabinet”, an intriguing metaphor that perhaps points towards his propensity for depicting people who have a great deal going on beneath the surface — though with Pinter, everything is conjecture. He informs us that by looking closer at any domestic scene, all manner of dirty secrets come crawling into the light.
Old Times, first performed in 1971, is a prime example of Pinter’s ability to create characters who are riveting, engaging an audience’s full attention despite not a great deal happening on stage. In this three-hander examining the relationship between a married couple and a mutual female “friend”, Pinter expertly forges an edge-of-your-seat narrative even though very little actually takes place. Deeley and Kate are visited for the weekend by Anna, who was the wife’s best friend when she was younger and – it is implied – has slept with the husband. And… that’s about it, plot-wise.
It’s testament not only to the brilliance of the script but also the performances that, for me at least, the play never tips over into tedium. Pinter certainly doesn’t make it easy for his actors, necessitating lengthy, loaded pauses, a large amount of pacing and frequent monologues. To really up the ante in the current production, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams have masochistically decided to take it in turns to play the parts of Kate and Anna. It’s a notion that terrifies the actor in me – what if you found yourself saying the wrong character’s lines? – but it does suggest some highly intriguing interpretations of a self-consciously obtuse script.
About a week before the performance I attended, an email was sent out announcing who would be playing which role: in this case, Scott Thomas was Kate while Williams portrayed Anna. It transpired that this was probably the most comfortable way round for a cast who fully inhabited the three roles on offer, and made it difficult to imagine the actors swapping. Scott Thomas appears perfectly at home in the icy, languorous skin of wife Kate, firing off crisp statements at odds with her feline body language. I found Williams the weakest of the three performers, possibly as a result of Anna’s characterisation as an eager-to-please but rather blank canvas, her behaviour often an attempt to match the actions of the couple whose life she “invades”. Unlike her fellow actors, Williams never gives us much of a glimpse beneath Anna’s surface, and I would argue that Pinter’s characters require a greater depth and sense of their turbulent internal life than she presents us with. In a different production, Williams’ subtle, assured performance would have been a highlight, and she only really suffered by comparison with the other two people on stage.
It was left to Rufus Sewell to steal the show (having previously impressed in TV films Cold Comfort Farm and the BBC’s acclaimed ShakespeaRe-Told version of The Taming of the Shrew in a standout performance as Petruchio opposite Shirley Henderson’s Katherine). Maybe because he was only expected to play the one part, Sewell was able to fully develop Deeley into a believable figure of brittle, jocular charm. A ball of nervous energy, he provided a neat counterpoint to Scott Thomas and Williams’ slower, more static performances, and gave a convincing depiction of a man struggling to maintain authority and masculine power.
All three were aided by clever staging: the play’s action is only spread over two rooms, but both were appropriately laid out in a triangular formation, with two sofas or beds and an armchair in the middle. In typically Pinteresque fashion, the script centres around a number of objects of power, with the furniture serving as the site for seemingly-civil face-offs. The characters lean over one another, stretch out across each other, jostling for position and chillingly declaring: “I remember you dead.” In spite of Deeley’s attempts at jokey humour and Anna trying to reawaken a sense of youthful frivolity in Kate, the play has a cold, hard heart that refuses to be warmed – and it’s all the more scintillating for that.
It all leaves us with a riot of questions: a great showcase for Pinter’s unrivalled capacity for provoking thought and discussion. It’s not the most celebrated of the playwright’s output, and not performed as frequently as his best-known work – with good reason. We are geared up to expect a shocking revelation that never really comes, and as usual Pinter’s men (or in this case, man) are more robust characters than his women: far more three-dimensional. However, there’s a sinister edge to the text, and the trio themselves, that makes it a solid study of “the weasel under the liquor cabinet”. In fact, in this house of secrets and guilty pasts, it’s not just the liquor cabinet that’s showing a need for pest control.