The phrase “intensely poetic” is usually a warning sign, the equivalent of “Danger, no tension here.” But the intensity of Ian Rickson’s ceaselessly fascinating revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” is as dramatic as it is poetic. Having Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams swap roles nightly may look like a gimmick, but their double perspective helps elucidate this most mysterious of memory plays. The tangible tension between them and Rufus Sewell proves highly erotic, unusually funny, not a little scary and, ultimately, achingly sad.
“There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” Anna’s measured observation is, for Pinter, unusually explicit. It’s the key to both the form and content of the 1971 play that appears to begins with a literal event — unseen in 20 years, Anna comes to stay with her former housemate Kate and her husband Deeley.
But from the calmly suggestive opening onwards, it’s obvious that things are not what they seem. Not only are Kate’s formerly withheld memories of her only friend suspiciously hazy, the husband and wife discuss Anna as if she’s not there, yet all the while she’s standing upstage, silhouetted by the light from a window.
In Hildegard Bechtler’s comfortable yet quietly chilly room without a view, the three of them swap conflicting memories. And, as in all shifting triangular relationships, two-against-one power plays move to the fore. Pincer movements and combative alliances grow ever more threatening, the mood darkening from exchanged stories and songs to interrogation, confrontation and manipulation. Merely passing a coffee cup becomes an act of aggression.
Sex and fear are so very definitely in the air that audiences are forced to question what it is they’re watching. Is Anna actually there or the product of their imaginations? Is the marriage dangerously loveless? Is Kate dead? Exactly who is the victim here?
Given that there is no single straight answer that “explains” everything, it’s a measure of the rigor of Rickson’s direction that the parallel interpretations held in balance definitely don’t play out as frustrating experiment. That’s especially the case in the pairing where Williams plays a taut, tougher Kate to Scott Thomas’ knockout Anna.
Although Scott Thomas is feted onscreen for her gripping underplaying of pain and difficulty, she’s also a dazzling comedienne, as she proved in London and Gotham in Rickson’s scintillating “The Seagull.” Deliciously aware of her power while in Kate and Deeley’s home — her Anna positively gleams with grinning self-confidence — she proffers a compliment. “You have a wonderful casserole.” “What?” puzzles Deeley. “I mean wife. So sorry.” Her faux sincerity and lethal timing turn the line into an attack that brings the house down. Her audacious performance runs from smoldering sexual enticement to acute yet beautifully restrained distress.
Her range and depth act as a spur to Williams, who is equally at home as a Kate whose anger creeps inexorably through brusque fortitude to shimmering with pain. In the reverse pairing, Scott Thomas is closer to her trademark ineluctable cool with Williams a shade effortful and self-conscious as the fly in the ointment.
Leaping from wicked glee to boiling fury, Sewell almost dances with self-satisfaction. His Deeley is putting on a supreme display of gamesmanship, and audiences are glued to his moods because his complete physical relaxation means he never shows off his preparation. His performance thus arrives as a series of jolting shocks that never feel gratuitous because of the pain revealed to be underpinning them.
For all the glory of the women, Rickson’s production reveals Deeley to be the focus of a play that now feels surprisingly autobiographical. Sewell’s breadth and weight of emotions suggest the consuming guilt engendered by adultery that Pinter later admitted to in his first marriage and the easy stumbles into rage that sometimes characterized his behavior. But even audiences unacquainted with the playwright who are prepared to park the need for literal explanation will be entranced by this unnerving, extraordinarily penetrating production. Seen once, it’s alluring; seen again with the reverse casting, it’s spellbinding.