There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.
I am a newcomer to Pinter, and this is only the third play of his I have seen after Moonlight and Betrayal, both in 2011.
Old Times is set in a secluded farmhouse belonging to married couple Kate and Deeley. They sit in their living room talking as they wait for the arrival of Kate’s friend Anna, whom Deeley has never met and whom Kate hasn’t seen in twenty years. Hildegard Bechtler’s sparse set design works well here, immediately suggesting tension and a certain coldness. I also liked director Ian Rickson’s decision to have Anna stand at the rear of the stage, looking out of the window: even though Anna is technically not present in these first few minutes, having her on stage lends an air of mystery and danger, a prelude of what is to come.
Deeley is full of questions and nervous energy, wanting to know what Anna’s like, while Kate is cool and calm and seemingly disinterested, even as she tells her husband that she and Anna used to steal, and put on, each other’s underwear. This sexual undertone never goes away, and, before they have even met, Deeley, although he does his best not to let it show, is already feeling threatened by Anna’s role in his wife’s past.
Kristin Scott Thomas is luminous as Anna – a role which arguably requires her to play against type. She is both fun and flirty yet filled with a nervous energy, by turns insecure and then powerfully mocking. Meanwhile Lia Williams as Kate spends much of the 80 minutes curled up in an armchair, her gaze flicking between her husband and old friend as they discuss her, often as if she weren’t even there, or as if she were dead (as she herself says, bitterly, at one point). Unfortunately, Williams failed to make me understand why Anna and Deeley are so intent on laying claim to Kate, though she does come alive in the devastating climax, finally giving us a glimpse of the inner steel that makes her character so attractive to the other two.
As the play progresses, Anna and Deeley make use of every weapon (in the form of memories) at their disposal in their battle for Kate – each claims to have been the one who took her to see the film Odd Man Out, they discuss her bathroom habits and sexual history. I’m not a fan of Rufus Sewell, but I thought he was magnificent as Deeley, believably charting his progress from man-of-the-house serving drinks at the start through the need to be boastful and competitive – when Anna describes her house in Sicily, he claims he’s also spent time on the island – before ending up a man so threatened and emasculated by Anna (who revelas things about his wife that he never knew) that he snarls at her that his wife’s sexual past is his ‘province’.
There is sexual tension between all three characters throughout the play – Rickson’s interpretation makes you wonder at one point if Anna and Kate were lovers, and then Deeley claims to have met Anna at a pub and spent most of the night looking up her skirt. Is the flirtatious Anna Deeley’s sexual fantasy? Are Kate and Anna two sides of the same person? Or are all three, in fact, dead, trapped in their own private hell, as suggested by Kate’s final outburst in which she ultimately takes control of the situation, viciously turning on her old friend and hissing that she remembers her, dead.
The beauty, and frustration, of Old Times is that the audience remains on shifting sand throughout – there are many interpretations and we don’t know which, if any, is correct. And so it is of memory, as two people subject to the same event experience it differently and depart with their own individual recollections. As time passes those memories can change, or even fail us, and we even rewrite what happened, recreating those memories as we wish they had been. In this three-handed tussle for control, Pinter reminds us just how powerful and wounding memories can be, whether they are true recollections of the past, or not.