The West End finds an unexpected stage star in film actress Julie Christie, whose riveting command of a new revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” imported from Wales’ Theater Clwyd, shows how much time has passed since Christie was properly served in any medium. Her previous stage work included London appearances and one Broadway stint — a Circle in the Square “Uncle Vanya” some two decades ago — but her current assignment suggests she is a natural, at least for Pinter. So bewitching is her performance that one yearns to see her tackle this playwright’s entire canon, as she possesses a gift essential to Pinter of making a potentially arid and tricky text ring absolutely true.
The actress’s warm, seductive presence is ideally suited to Kate, the wife at the center of Pinter’s 1971 play about emotional and erotic possession. First glimpsed sprawled on a sofa, face beaming with almost unnerving serenity, Christie has a sphinxlike allure crucial to the evening.
Visited at her seaside home by old friend and flatmate Anna (Harriet Walter), now expatriated to Italy, Kate is this play’s equivalent to Ruth in “The Homecoming” or Emma in “Betrayal”– woman as mystery and as magnetic force, whose unknowable cool burns away at those around her, not least film director husband Deeley (Leigh Lawson).
“Old Times” relates the battle between Anna and Deeley for Kate’s body and soul, while laying bare a series of events embedded in memory that — Pinter suggests — are rendered no less true for possibly not having happened. The play has no plot to speak of, and yet it seems packed full of incident. Stolen underwear, trips to the movies, even the choice of a casserole for dinner — from these seemingly incidental details emerges a scenario of surprising power in which past and present, fact and fiction, and at times even Anna and Kate are blurred.
If the entire production were as haunting as its star, the show might be a triumph, though as it is, it certainly exceeds producer Duncan Weldon’s last “Old Times” a decade ago with Nicola Pagett, Liv Ullmann and Michael Gambon.
Australian director Lindy Davies, billed intriguingly in the program as an erstwhile film “performance consultant” to Christie, has a good eye for moment-to-moment detail, and she presumably deserves some credit for shaping Christie’s difficult final monologue. (None though, for allowing Julian McGowan’s set, whose generic and heavy look could not be further from the liquefied realm of a play that makes a specific virtue of softness: ditto, Nick Beadle’s harsh lighting.)
The play’s real fury and sorrow are inconsistently felt, and Lawson might be a more affecting Deeley if he were less willing to play the buffoon. Walter makes as stately and majestic an Anna as Lawson’s Deeley looks haggard and worn.
Any disappointments pale next to the thrill of discovery of the play’s star, whose opening remark, “It is a very long time,” elicits an appreciative murmur from the house. These double-edged frissons carry on right through to the wordless final scene in which Kate lays waste her suitors with little more than a fixed gaze. By that point, the much-vaunted smile seems as much shield as invitation, a facial self-defense.
The play ends with a sudden blackout on Kate’s moment of triumph, which on this occasion anyway, becomes every bit the actress’s as well.