Old Times – “If you have only one of something you can’t say it’s the best of anything.”
As the production in the Pinter Theatre reached the end of its run on Saturday, it seemed both timely and essential to mark its passing. Old Times consists of a searing and unremitting eighty minutes, starring Rufus Sewell (last seen in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) playing Deeley, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternating the roles two old friends, Kate and Anna. On Thursday nights, Sewell would flip a coin to see which of his co-stars would play his wife, and which the nervy outsider there to disturb their childless calm routine by the sea. The only thing that prevents the narrative from brutally excising this audience’s own sense of equilibrium is how dated it now feels, one example coincides with Anna’s most quoted line:
“You have a wonderful casserole…I mean wife.”
Before the gastronomic explosion and competitive cooking hit, these three smoke and knock back brandy constantly, and though their mutual frame of reference centres on the human experience rather than cultural peaks and troughs as they appeared in 1971, it is removed just far enough from contemporary life to be endurable.
In announcing Pinter’s Nobel Prize in 2005, Horace Engdahl said that Pinter was an artist “who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”. Deeley and Kate go from a teasing, relaxed routine of companionship to a shattered, shuddering pair who may or not have made survived the evening with their relationship – or lives – intact. Anna enters as Kate’s oldest and dearest friend with no explanation of why there has been silence between them for twenty years; it is not quite enough that she lives in Sicily with her husband. Her shrill barrage of fragmented anecdotes from the early days of their friendship interspersed with dreamy comments set teeth even more on edge , (“I was interested once in the arts, but I can’t remember now which ones they were”) warning us that she is trouble, whoever she is.
While this theme is by no means a constant in Pinter’s writing, Deeley’s possessive jealousy of Kate while leering over Anna and reminiscing over looking up her skirt twenty years previously is reminiscent of of Stanley’s erratic behaviour in the Birthday Party – culminating in his attack on Lulu at the end of the second Act, before dissolving into maniacal laughter. Deeley cackles with Anna over Kate being unable to dry herself properly, suggesting they powder her like a baby before losing his temper and lashing out at Anna about how she has aged since their last encounter, where they may or may not have slept together. The atmosphere congeals further as partial or potential truths emerge. Anna explains:
“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.”
Assertions produced in the first act inevitably dissipate (just as Stanley describes his career: saying “I’ve played the piano all over the world,” reducing that immediately to “All over the country,” and then, after a “pause“, undercuts both hyperbolic self-representations in stating “I once gave a concert.”) These pauses are the key, interspersed as they are with unanswered questions – “What’s the game?” Assumptions are shredded and endings tend to be ambiguous in the world of the absurd.
One of Kate’s few lines – Scott-Thomas played her perfectly as a composed sphinx, smiling awkwardly while she is discussed in the third person – “I remember you dead.” She describes Anna dead in bed, covered in dirt, and how her body was gone when a nameless man arrived in their shared flat. She told him that no one slept in the extra bed, and he lay in it, thinking Kate would sleep with him. Instead, she nearly suffocated him with mud from the flower pot by the window, and his response was a proposal of marriage. As the man was of course Deeley.
There are several potential explanations. One is that Kate found out that Anna was trying to steal Deeley from her, so she killed her. Anna’s death upset Deeley and so Kate then eliminates him. Once he was dead, Kate’s mind took over, imagining him hopelessly in love with her. She has lived the past 20 years in a fictional world where Anna and Deeley love her instead of each other.
Another is that Kate and Anna are opposing halves on one being, it being so unlikely they were friends. Deeley met “Anna” first, at a party where he ogled her stockings. Deeley then met Kate at the cinema, where they saw “Odd Man Out”. Deeley weeps once this schism becomes clear, and stares at the empty bed before embracing Kate. Kate vanquished Anna for his sake, but twenty years later, she tells him that Anna is returning, and he does all he can to keep Anna out, resulting in Kate killing Anna again by recalling the first time she killed her.
Pinter’s comments in his broadcast O Superman in 1990 capture the distortion the living create regarding the dead, and the language used in the process:
“Does reality essentially remain outside language, separate, obdurate, alien, not susceptible to description? Is an accurate and vital correspondence between what is and our perception of it impossible? Or is it that we are obliged to use language only in order to obscure and distort reality – to distort what happens-because we fear it? We are encouraged to be cowards. We can’t face the dead. But we must face the dead because they die in our name. We must pay attention to what is being done in our name.”
One cannot help but pay attention. If productions like this continue to be produced in his name, then it will remain resonant and intact for as long as audience’s nerves can stand it.