Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, 26 January & 16 February 2013
Lia Williams – Kate
Kristin Scott Thomas – Anna
Rufus Sewell – Deeley
A reunion of old friends after years of separation would normally be a happy occasion. But for some reason Kate, wife of Deeley and old friend of Anna, was extremely anxious when the lights went up on the first scene of Old Times.
The precise cause of this fretfulness was a puzzle that had to be teased out from minute observation of the three characters. In fact, the sense behind much of what the characters said and did was elusive to any superficial viewing. Decoding the inner lives of the trio became an intense mental game often requiring scrutiny of those not speaking at any particular moment.
As the stage brightened, Anna stood by the window with her back to us, at this stage theatrically visible but effectively absent. Kate sat on one of the two sofas, fielding Deeley’s questions about her friend with evasive answers. Deeley’s initial utterances marked him out as a sarcastic oaf.
Anna turned round and burst in on the couple. A vague air of unease rippled the surface of her elegant, well-groomed appearance. But this was mild compared with slightly dowdy Kate’s patent anxiety.
The interloper’s lack of self-confidence pointed towards the possibility that she was hiding something, perhaps that the claims in her letter about her marvellous life were not true. This would make sense of Deeley’s subsequent sarcasm towards her.
After Anna’s long introductory speech about the good times she had enjoyed with Kate in London, there was a long pause as Kate made coffee for her. Anna looked on anxiously, afraid that Kate might have forgotten all about her, but when she saw that Kate had remembered exactly how she liked her coffee (she poured in Anna’s milk and two sugars unprompted) Anna began to look relieved. This meant Kate had remembered.
Kate then stated what she had already demonstrated, by using a key phrase in the play “Yes, I remember”. The long pause before speaking and the slowness of the delivery, made the phrase into an assertion of power. This connection between memory and power was the mainspring of the piece.
Deeley was clearly attracted to Anna and moved closer to her. But she responded by going to the other sofa to be beside Kate, suggesting that this was her main interest. Deeley sat on the sofa, and as the conversation turned to life in the countryside, Anna’s arousing effect on him became apparent as he clenched his fist and flexed his arm suggestively at the elbow, when talking of the “substantial food” required by healthy outdoor living, which he said helped to “keep you going”, a phrase which in context acquired an obvious sexual overtone.
As a keen observer of her husband’s moods, Kate had picked up on this. She joined in with the suggestive wordplay, but in a more subtle manner. Indicating her interest in things physical (and by extension sexual) she said she liked “those kind of things, doing it”, with the potential meaning of “it” open to wide interpretation.
As they relived the past, Deeley sang a line from an old song, a game that Anna joined in with, leading into an extended and comically disconnected alternating duet in which one random line followed another.
Deeley recollected a trip to the cinema during which he had first met Kate, which led into Anna’s strange story of her encounter with a shadowy figure in the flat the women used to share. The precise details of this were crucial for the end of the play.
An exchange between Anna and Deeley, caused Kate to become annoyed and shout “You talk of me as if I were dead”. This established the word “dead” as meaning “out of the picture” and insignificant, possibly related to Kate’s use of it in her final tirade at Anna.
In the aftermath of this outburst, Kate and Deeley met over the cigarette box and exchanged worried glances. It was a perfect depiction of one of those moments where a couple in company cannot speak out loud but try to communicate non-verbally through telling looks.
Kate offered Anna a cigarette, who in turn assured her friend that she had always been very much alive, touching her lightly in a way that Deeley found too intimate and causing him to shout “Stop that!” The outburst seemed to come from nowhere.
Anna needled Kate over her inability to recollect their cultural life by saying: “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten”. Lack of recall was a distinct weakness in this environment where recollections of the past were being used to define others.
Anna mentioned almost in passing that both she and Kate had been at the screening of Odd Man Out where Deeley had first met Kate.
Deeley reverted to talking about his job, as if in a world of his own. He talked about Anna’s husband with an air of sarcasm and disdain that suggested he did not believe that he existed.
Kate leapt to Anna’s defence and asked supportive questions about her life in Sicily, countering her husband’s aggression. Deeley continued on about his job, but Kate restated her slightly stilted, formal question about the Sicilian people.
Addressing Kate as if continuing the normal course of conversation, Anna started to talk to her as if they were still sharing a flat twenty years ago.
From fraught emotional tension, the performance turned suddenly into the surreal spectacle of Anna suggesting they should stay in, cook something and play some records: all this with Deeley still in the room and not long after they had eaten a large casserole.
Kate willingly slipped into this bizarre game and eventually sat at Anna’s feet, nuzzling her head in Anna’s lap, saying “What shall I wear tomorrow? I can’t make up my mind.”
At the 16 February performance, Kate kneeled on a cushion next to Anna and did not put her head in Anna’s lap.
In the light of her previous insecurity, Kate seemed to want Anna to be a comforting mother figure. The ease with which the pair took to this re-enactment of their shared past subtly suggested that it was still very real to both of them.
The first half ended with Kate going off to have a bath.
The production had no interval, so after a brief glimpse of the sea out of the window, the set change between the two acts was carried out behind a large screen while the audience sat in darkness listening to tinkling music. Needless to say this prompted many in the audience to chatter quietly.
This was a major weakness in the production as it introduced a dead gap in the centre of the production that could have been filled with something of visual interest to prevent audience disengagement.
At the start of Act Two, two single beds and a chair stood in an apparently different room with red walls.
Deeley brought coffee for Anna and was clearly delighted to be alone with her. He claimed to have remembered seeing Anna at The Wayfarers pub, something which she could not remember, but later acknowledged as a fact.
This subsequent reversal, however, was not heralded by an acceptance of the other’s memories, which would have been too much of a concession of power.
Insisting that Anna had been at The Wayfarers and that he had looked up her skirt, Deeley uttered a key phrase that summarised one of the play’s major themes: “It’s the truth. I remember clearly”. Anna’s response “I’ve rarely heard a sadder story” subtly used the word “story” to imply a lack of veracity.
Anna pointed out that “Katey’s taking a long time over her bath” as she lay back on the bed next to Deeley as if inviting his touch. She then curled up seductively next to him.
This had the effect of prompting Deeley’s suggestion that Anna help him to towel down and powder Kate. In context it sounded as if he were proposing some kind of threesome.
Anna looked almost as if she were up for it. Deeley was sat on the sofa and Anna stood very close to him straddling her legs over his extended right leg. But his sudden reference to her looking forty caused Anna to recoil, offended and disappointed, just as Kate emerged from the bathroom.
Kate looked around suspiciously at the other two as if she was aware of their intimacy.
Deeley greeted Kate by singing snatches of songs. Anna joined in, but this time she and Deeley seemed to be competing for Kate’s attention. Fresh from her bath, she seemed a prize up for grabs by whoever made the most attractive appeal.
Anna sang “The way you changed my life” holding her hand out in desperation. But Kate opted for Deeley. He took her by the hand as he sang “No, no, they can’t take that away from me” as if celebrating a minor triumph in securing Kate for himself at Anna’s expense.
Kate spoke in a stilted, unnaturalistic way about her preference for the countryside over a big city like London. The only thing she liked about big cities was the way things appearing blurred in the rain.
Anna immediately reassured Kate that in a city she could have a “nice gas fire” and a range of other comforts. By stirring memories of their London flat share, this restarted another phase in their re-enactment of their previous lives.
Kate willingly stepped back into their pretend world. After being rebuffed, Anna had now won Kate back.
Anna sat at the end of a bed while Kate lay beside her, flat on her stomach. Kate reached out with her hands as their regression game continued.
Deeley tried to reassert control by commenting on Kate’s smile and asked her to repeat it. This failed and the women persisted in their pretend game, talking about boys they like. This provoked Deeley, sat on the other bed looking at his feet anxiously, to comment sarcastically that one of the boys, Christy, was “out of town”.
Despite previously denying she had been to The Wayfarers, Anna admitted in her anecdote about borrowing Kate’s underwear that a man had looked up her skirt. Her recollection of the past now dovetailed with Deeley’s. This looked inconsistent, unless the two could only remember different aspects of the same event.
Deeley joined in, asking Anna about Kate’s blushing and her passions, again as if she were not there. But his mood turned on a sixpence, so that he became angry at how all this was “distasteful” insisting that “I’m her husband”.
Kate watched this game slouched in the armchair and finally snapped at Deeley “If you don’t like it go.” The worm had turned.
Insisting that she did not want to disrupt but celebrate friendship, Anna claimed that she had “found” Kate, as if she was somehow responsible for shaping Kate into what she became. This could have been the trigger behind Kate’s impending outburst.
Deeley continued his anecdote about meeting Anna. Kate still slouched in the chair and commented sarcastically, telling Deeley that Anna had fallen in love with him. But her tone of voice made it sound as if this was playful, flattering invention.
This could have been her playing along with the game of inventing the past by claiming superior recollection of it, just before finally smashing the game to pieces by taking it to an absurd conclusion.
Kate delivered her angry game-changing bombshell: “But I remember you. I remember you dead”.
She had been observing and learning how to play Anna and Deeley’s game in which they asserted power by making possibly false claims about the past. These contrasted with Kate’s own uncertain recollections at the start.
She now asserted herself and expressed her anger, attacking Anna by claiming to remember her being dead.
The rules of the game, as established, were that the past could be altered to serve the needs of the present. So Kate’s wish that Anna should leave became absurdly expressed in the nonsensical claim to have seen her dead in the past. Kate brought Anna and Deeley’s snugly complicit game to an end by stretching its rules to breaking point.
Kate’s recollection of the dead Anna was slightly stilted, which was possibly the result of it being invented on the fly.
Deeley sat on the corner of a bed and began crying with his head drooped. In so doing he began to act exactly as described in Anna’s anecdote about the mysterious figure she once saw in the flat share.
This acting out of Anna’s story could be seen as an opportunistic attempt by Deeley to restart the game by playing out her memory in real life. But otherwise it made a neat, mysterious ending to a play that revels in its own lack of simple explanation.
Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2 & 6 February 2013
Lia Williams – Anna
Kristin Scott Thomas – Kate
Rufus Sewell – Deeley
Kristin Scott Thomas as Kate had poise and a natural superiority deriving from her class accent. She does not “do” dowdy. It seemed that this inherent quality in her performances meant that whichever of Kate and Anna she played turned into the dominant female in the production. This was not just a subjective reading of the performance: in both versions Lia Williams played a subservient role, in this configuration resting her head on Kate’s shoulder just as her Kate had placed her head on Kristin Scott Thomas’ lap in the other configuration.
Whereas previously Lia Williams’ Kate had been anxious and put-upon, here Kristin Scott Thomas was merely ruffled.
Lia William’s Anna was obviously wealthy, but did not have the concomitant accent and thus did not sound classy. Her character had the status anxiety of a parvenue.
Kristin Scott Thomas’ Kate poured coffee for Anna saying “Yes, I remember” and proved her point by making a big, demonstrative show of putting in milk and exactly the right number of sugars. This was entirely warranted by the text as she is never asked how she likes her coffee and the production was very clever to have spotted and exploited this.
From Kristin Scott Thomas, this was a powerful retort to Anna’s monologue. Her assuredness was also physical: she bent at the knees to crouch level with the table and then rose again smoothly and lithely just using her legs.
With Kristin Scott Thomas for a wife, Deeley seemed an even greater idiot. Kate’s reactions to him were supercilious rather than scared.
He was delighted that Anna wanted brandy and danced over to the table to pour some. Anna’s casserole remark looked like nervous desperation.
Talking of “substantial food”, Deeley was behind Anna’s sofa humping it, a display that caused Kate to smirk. She deigned to join in the quasi-bawdy word play.
Kate’s response to Deeley’s comment about her head appearing to float “My head is quite fixed. I have it on” was said with incredulous disdain. She was also very confident when asserting that at a particular point in the past she had known what day it had been “Yes I did. It was Saturday”.
Anna’s singing of “I get no kick from champagne” was cringeworthy as was Deeley’s accompanying kick. Kate looked down at her hands as if to imply that he should share her embarrassment at his antics.
When Deeley sang “Oh how the ghost of you clings” Anna stood next to Kate and stared at her strangely as if the word ‘ghost’ had made her think of the past.
Kate’s “You talk of me as if I were dead” was spoken standing in a dominant position, and calmly, as if she were hurt but not crumpled. She had backbone.
Kate went to take a cigarette from the box and announced dramatically that the others were talking of her as if she were dead. After this, she sat and had tears gently falling down her cheeks witnessing her distress.
Deeley’s “Stop that!” was said when he had his back turned to Kate and Anna, so that he was not reacting to the sight of the closeness, but to Anna’s description of their intimacy.
When it came to Anna talking to Kate as if they were twenty years back, Kate was standing while Anna crouched submissively near her on the sofa as she suggested Kate put on some records, offering her a trip back in time. But Kate was in control, and Anna the supplicant.
Anna’s exaggerated description of the horrors of going out (in London) was interesting to watch for her wide-eyed keenness to ensnare Kate in her past world. She shot sideways glances at Deeley when trying to rope Kate into her game. Kate stepped gingerly into this world as if at first unsure.
When the act change came, the set change behind the screen was again too long and felt like a disruption.
Deeley was again manic in his nervous explanation to Anna about the casters on the beds. Interestingly, it became obvious that the beds were separate, implying that the couple were not sleeping together, which given the isolated location might have provided some explanation for Deeley’s odd behaviour.
Anna looked puzzled and dismissive of Deeley’s anecdotal recollections of her at the Wayfarer’s Tavern. When she said “Katey’s taking a long time over her bath” she was on the opposite bed to Deeley (not lying next to him as KST did) and it was Deeley who seized opportunistically on what he thought was a hint from Anna and moved over to her. As she reclined slightly, he leant over her to discuss the erotic subject of Kate’s bath time soaping. He was the one who took the initiative.
Deeley’s erratic behaviour and the way he talked about himself without any else being interested suggested the possibility of substance abuse.
There was no hint of any sexual chemistry between Deeley and Anna. This was particularly the case after Deeley said to her “You must be about forty, I should think by now” which put a real damper on the rapport between them.
Deeley’s cutting remark to Anna about her being around forty meant that he did not fancy her from that moment, and so when Kate returned from the bathroom, his singing “can’t take that away from me” expressed his confidence in liking her.
Kate was only mildly concerned about what Deeley and Anna might have been up to, compared with Lia William’s Kate’s definite air of unease.
Deeley did not feel the need to reclaim Kate from Anna when singing “Can’t take that away” as he did with Kristin Scott Thomas’ Anna.
Kate lay on the bed, with Anna sitting near her. Kate’s speech about London concluded that a big city only had one attraction, which Anna countered eagerly with repetitions of the word “nice” in her speech. When Kate then asked “Is it raining?” Anna had her hands close to her.
When the back-in-time game began again, Kate agreed to its continuance, but was still very much in control.
There was a touching sequence in which the two women talked about boys they knew. Anna rested her head near Kate’s shoulder as if smelling her, just as Lia Williams as Kate had placed her head in Anna’s lap. In both versions, Lia Williams defaulted to the needy, supplicant role.
Deeley angrily interjected from the other corner of the room so that that Christy was “out of town”.
Kate was distant when announcing that the coffee was cold and Anna was solicitous and needy when she said she would make some fresh.
After the elaboration of the underwear anecdote and Deeley’s comment about Kate and Anna seeming to have a perfect marriage, Anna firmly reassured him that they were just great friends. Deeley’s anger appeared to come from nowhere.
Kate got fed up with him and told him “If you don’t like it go”. She was calm but firm with a hint that she was not entirely serious, as seen by her choice of destinations: Sicily or China.
Deeley was confused about whether he had been with Anna or Kate at The Wayfarers, “Maybe it was you”. Kate hinted that Anna had pretended to be her, so perhaps this confusion resulted from Anna’s deliberate game?
The ending felt weird partly because Kristin Scott Thomas’s Kate was confident and almost jovial when asking Deeley about Anna falling in love with him. But in the light of Deeley’s uncertainty, it was also possible that she was referring obliquely to her own feelings.
When Kate delivered her crushing “But I remember you. I remember you dead” it was almost jokingly, but with a steely ire. She had look of triumph when demolishing Anna with her speech.
Kate moved towards Anna as she continued her account of finding her dead, and also how Anna had woken up. She gripped Anna’s face when describing how she had mired it with dirt, as Anna collapsed to the floor and looked up at Kate. She stayed in this position until the silent end sequence.
Kate ripped the cover off the bed to reveal the pristine white sheets underneath. As she moved towards Anna, Kate also momentarily looked up Anna’s skirt in a mocking and perhaps revengeful reference to Deeley’s earlier anecdote, which Anna had now confirmed.
Kate was very powerful when describing how she had taken a bath and sat naked beside Anna’s dead body. Kate sat on the bed and looked down at Anna regally.
The final blow came when Kate described Anna as “no one. No one at all”.
The re-enactment of the event in Anna’s anecdote looked better in this version. A surreal interpretation of the action became more plausible because of Deeley’s confusion between them being more apparent. Kate’s anger was beautiful if puzzling.
Confident Kate seemed above personal retribution, she had not hitherto shown any sign of feeling threatened or intimidated by Anna’s presence. Naturalistically, her diatribe would have been an overreaction. This made it possible for her coup de grace to be surrealistic. It was internally consistent with the atmosphere of the piece albeit difficult to reconcile with reality.
Old Times is a demanding watch. The cast reversal made for an even more demanding comparison between the two versions. When Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams swapped roles they reversed the dynamic of the relationship between the two female characters to the extent that the two versions could be seen as different productions.
Although a very short play, the attention it demanded and the consequent payback from that concentration made it a very rewarding experience.
The complexity of the piece meant that any attempt at making sense of it ran into the same problems experienced by the characters within it: a definite feeling that the truth of the actions, motivations and inner lives of those immediately present to us were elusive and opaque.
The New World Order, Shoreditch Town Hall, 19 November 2011
Hydrocracker’s production, directed by Ellie Jones, took five of Pinter’s political plays and used their common theme to knit them together to form an entirely convincing extended narrative, which was then turned into an immersive experience for the audience.
Actors dressed as security guards frisked and passed (fake) metal detectors over the audience as they entered, inducting us into the authoritarian world of the performance. The people being processed did appear a little reticent, but not because they found the experience intimidating: it was more a case of being unsure how to respond to the situation.
Sporting our newly acquired visitors badges, we milled around in the main entrance hall. The “journalists” with their distinctive press badges and cameras who had filed in with us at the same time were in fact part of the cast.
Officious people in suits wandered around looking busy before leading us up some stairs and into a long narrow room for the Press Conference, which was the first of the five plays in the sequence.
The Minister for Cultural Integrity stood on a podium in front of rows of chairs. The audience were mixed in with the press, creating an inclusive atmosphere. Applause initiated by the Minister’s cronies was impossible not to join in with. As an audience we were conditioned to applaud the performance, but there was an eerie sense that we were somehow providing approval for the Minister’s fascistic nonsense.
The Minister’s sinister warning that critical dissent was acceptable – if left at home – seemed particularly apt in the light of the various Occupy protests.
At the end of the press conference the Minister left the room by a side door and we were invited to join him shortly afterwards. We were told that he had something to show us.
The room was elegantly decorated and dominated by a long table. The Minister sat at one end in front of some papers and a book, which he began to read in silence as we sat down on chairs around the outside of the room. To the side, a clock seemed to tick slowly on a mantelpiece that also held a decanter and glasses.
One for the Road
This was the setting for the first part of One for the Road. The nameless prisoner was sent for and entered the lush room slowly before sitting at the opposite end of the table looking bruised.
The Minister put down his book, Harold Pinter’s Death Etc., and began his questioning. The calm, loquacious, elderly politician made for a more sinister interrogator than the minor functionary who appears to play the role of Nicolas in the text.
The Minister rose from his chair and approached the prisoner at the other end of the table to talk to him and wave his fingers in front of his eyes. The authentic decanter and glasses made for a realistic setting.
The ticking clock, which was discovered later to be a sound effect, added an extra air of menace to proceedings.
Once the prisoner’s interrogation was finished, we were ushered out of the room and taken down a stairwell to sign confidentiality forms. Tables were decked with piles of forms and assorted biros. As we queued to sign, a boy dashed into the room before being restrained by a guard. The Minister walked in through another door and thus began the next part of One for the Road in which the prisoner’s son was questioned.
The conversation with the boy took place amid a group of bemused audience members and finished with the woman who had escorted us to the room looking embarrassed that we had witnessed this spectacle.
We were led back to the entrance hall and told to wait. Two actors in suits joined us to perform Precisely. This miniature was the most difficult to shoehorn into the sequence of plays because the play is a sideways comment on the callousness of the kind of cold war mega-death calculations that used to occupy decision-makers during the 1980s. As such it has little resonance with current politics and consequently fell a little flat.
But this was soon forgotten as a woman in dark shawl beckoned us to leave the building via the front door and follow her down to the basement via some steps. There, in the dark underworld of the building, we were met by soldiers and some civilians who mingled among us as we were instructed to line up against the wall on both sides of a long hall.
This was the setting for the first part of Mountain Language. The foul-mouthed squaddies ordered the women around in a way that gave us our first convincing experience of truly unpleasant behaviour. A woman with a bandaged and bleeding hand was told that the dog that bit her should have given its name before biting. This callousness delivered at full volume was really disturbing to witness at close quarters.
Further foul language and sexual harassment brought the sequence to a close and we were escorted into a smaller visitors room for the second part. The prisoner being visited was the same man we saw as Victor in the previous One for the Road scene.
With the audience quite close to the table where the prisoner sat facing the old woman visiting him, the loud and violent crack produced as the guard smashed a large piece of wood against the table was shocking: perhaps the most convincingly brutal of all the petty acts of malice within the performance.
The impact of this was slightly undercut by the stage directions being followed to the letter. The lights are supposed to dim and the voices of the prisoner and visitor are heard in voice over. In this brightly lit room the sight of the actors sitting mute as their voices played out over speakers was a little odd.
We returned to the hall again for the third part of Mountain Language, which showed yet more humiliation of the hooded prisoner.
A woman with a clipboard, who had been ushering us around the building led us out the hallway and stood outside the door to another room. She quizzed us individually using intrusive, but faintly nonsensical questions taken from Pinter’s Hothouse, before admitting us to the room.
The New World Order
The small room was the setting for The New World Order. The prisoner was being held by two soldiers. They taunted him with allusions to the punishments they were about to inflict, as the sound of screaming filtered in from elsewhere in the building, adding to the tension. The brutality of the soldiers was nicely undercut by their subsequent comic sentimentalism about the virtue of their actions.
The final part of Mountain Language saw us back in the visitors room. A security camera panned noisily from side to side to add to the atmosphere of surveillance. The sequence ended with the prisoner collapsing in a fit on the floor, after which we were escorted out by increasingly tetchy and uncommunicative guards.
We were led through more of the town hall’s basement area past a woman talking alone before being ushered into a bare room for the Gila scene from One for the Road.
She stood helpless and bare-footed on the wooden floorboards looking shaken and frightened. The only light in the squalid room flickered on and off as the government minister stood close to her and shouted abuse at her.
The audience left the room by a door to the outside. We walked around the side of the building and up some stairs to a larger, more comfortable room for the final scene in One for the Road.
A desk stood in one corner at which the Minister sat before rising to set the prisoner free, but not before delivering the devastating final line, insulting the prisoner’s son in the past tense, implying that he had been killed.
Another set of doors to the outside, this time at ground level were opened by the guards and we watched in silence as the prisoner hobbled through them and down the centre of an alley called Rivington Place before disappearing round the corner at the junction with Rivington Street.
The audience were then unceremoniously ushered out the same doors and told to hand in their name badges by the unsmiling guards. The only recognition that we had witnessed a theatrical performance came just outside the doors where we were handed a pamphlet-sized programme.
Without any opportunity for applause or seeing the cast out of character, we emerged into the chilly Shoreditch night with our thoughts.
There was a definite gain from bringing these five plays together as combined they proved to be more than the sum of their individual parts. However, the long gap between the first two parts of One for the Road and its ending meant that the impact of the offstage death of the prisoner’s son was muted. When performed in isolation this shock revelation comes when our mind is still fixed on Victor’s situation, but in this arrangement with roughly an hour of intervening action, there was a tendency to forget about the boy.
The shock provided by the close audience involvement in the story meant that many of the jokes in the plays, particularly the brutal soldier in The New World Order weeping because of how pure he felt, failed to raise a laugh the way they would have done in a traditional theatrical setting. The audience was in effect part of the action of the play and as we settled into our role as complicit observers we tended not to laugh at events. Perhaps, given the nature of the narrative, that is a healthier attitude to take.
But the main result of the immersive experience provided by this promenade through Shoreditch Town Hall was to enhance the power of the brutality depicted in these Pinter plays.
The increased realism provided by this form of performance hinted that the bullies and authoritarians depicted in the plays are already among us. All that protects us from them is a thin veneer of democracy and civilisation.
Victoria Station & One for the Road, Young Vic, 15 October 2011
Not often do you walk into a studio theatre and see a car engine in the middle of the floor.
A figure was slumped unconscious at a table just behind the engine. So even before the start of this hour-long Pinter double bill at the Young Vic’s Clare Theatre, the audience was intrigued.
The set remained the same for both plays. A table with microphone and chair stood in one corner of the rectangular performance area facing the length of the rectangle. Diagonally opposite was another table facing in the other direction, with the engine directly in front of it and two lamps before it representing a car.
In the other corners of the rectangle were two speakers which amplified the voice of the minicab controller in the first piece, Victoria Station. Just to the side of the car table stood a cocktail cabinet used in One for the Road. In the centre, covering a junction of cables, was an upholstered square bench.
The performance began when Keith Dunphy’s controller entered and sat behind the microphone at his desk. He tried to get the driver to pick up a passenger at Victoria Station. The only problem was that the driver not only did not know where he was, but he had also never heard of Victoria Station.
A pleasing contrast was established between the exasperated precision of the Irish controller, whose eyes burned with frustration, and the confused vagueness of the English driver.
The driver’s mood altered when the controller tried to contact some of the other cars. He spat down the radio that he was the only one to be trusted and that the others were all “bloodsuckers”.
The controller referred to a car having a ‘choke’, which in the age of engine management systems is a reference that requires an explanatory footnote.
It turned out that the driver had just parked up after falling in love his passenger, a woman now asleep on the back seat. The driver said: “I’m going to stay in this car with her for the rest of my life. I’m going to marry her in this care. We’ll die together in this car.”
The controller changed from his previous sweary threats against the driver and responded warmly to the news, arranging to meet him to celebrate his newfound happiness with him.
This odd ten-minute portrait of two isolated individuals caught in an absurd and increasingly surreal situation was very satisfying. All we knew about this world was what they were telling us, and with strict realism out the window, the possibilities of their world were potentially limitless.
Anyone who has engaged in a circular and pointless online discussion will have felt an echo of the experience in this brief play.
The controller left the space, at which point Kevin Doyle stood upright and became a ‘controller’ of a different sort: Nicholas, the interrogator in One for the Road.
One for the Road
Keith Dunphy, who had undergone a rapid make-up job offstage, now re-entered as Victor the prisoner. He had facial injuries, but the main indicator of his condition was the way he shuffled into the room, taking short painful strides, the agony writ over his face more striking than the stage paint. Even the process of sitting on the centre seat looked agonising.
The text indicates that Victor’s first words are muffled and are repeated a second time. He could hardly speak due to bruising of the mouth and tongue, as directly mentioned in the final moments of the play.
Nicholas found the process of interrogation amusing and laughed at his own jokes in the way only a truly self-obsessed monster can. He ignored Victor’s pain when making him stand and sit once more, and paid no attention to the anguish produced when he talked about the prisoner’s wife and son, who were also being held somewhere in the building.
Nicholas sat on the seat with his back to Victor when getting onto the subject of Victor’s wife and their sex life, but otherwise he circled round talking to Victor from various angles.
Victor’s last words in the sequence, his repeated “Kill me” were also painfully pronounced. Nicholas responded to his pleading with more self-serving nonsense.
The lights went dark and Victor exited, still maintaining his agonised gait. This meant that he did not break out of character so that his subsequent reappearance was more convincing.
Nicholas crouched in a corner to question Victor’s son Nicky, who occupied himself by shifting with his feet along a metal barrier at the opposite side of the stage. He shuffled along one side of the structure, turned the end and shuffled back along the other side, while answering Nicholas’ questions. Nicky had spat at the soldiers who had come to take his father away and Nicholas’ final words in the sequence, reminding Nicky that those soldiers did not like him either, were quietly menacing.
Another blackout was followed by the entry of Victor’s wife, Gila. As well as being dirty and dishevelled, she had words written in black felt pen on her face. The most legible of these was SLUT. The letters had been written in capitals that flowed round each other. There was something vaguely swastika-like about the pattern, which was also reflected in the arrangement of tables and furniture in the set.
Nicholas’ interrogation of Gila was monosyllabic and far harsher than his treatment of Victor or Nicky. Gila seemed to provoke his especial ire. He swore at her in a way he had not spoken to the others. He responded to her answers with more whys? whens? and why nots? in a way that made no sense.
The lamps that had served as the minicab headlights were repositioned by Nicholas and shone at Gila to intensify his scrutiny of her.
Gila offered no real resistance and meekly put up with Nicholas’ long diatribe about the virtues of her patriotic father.
The most biting line in the play, when Nicholas responds to Gila’s inability to state how many times she has been raped with the retort “And you consider yourself a reliable witness?”, was very powerful.
The sequence ended with a hint that her maltreatment for the entertainment of the troops was going to continue.
Nicholas’ final meeting with Victor offered the promise of release. But the prisoner’s garbled question about his son heralded the play’s final devastating line “Your son? Oh, don’t worry about him. He was a little prick.”
Victor glared impotently at Nicholas as the implication of the past tense of the verb in the last sentence sank in.
At the curtain call, Anna Hewson (Gila) had tears in eyes. It was impossible to say whether she had been overcome by the force of the play, or was just emotional because this had been the final performance in the production’s run.
The most interesting performance of the evening was Kevin Doyle’s Nicholas. To begin with his characterisation of the inquisitor seemed understated. He came across as nothing more than a slightly eccentric teacher. This Nicholas was certainly less aggressive and vile than other examples I have seen.
But as the play progressed, this understatement made perfect sense. It captured an underlying blandness and inadequacy for which the character is trying to compensate by acting tough.
The play is a classic of political theatre and bears frequent viewing.
The Homecoming, Swan Theatre Stratford, 20 August 2011
This production had me enthralled before a word was spoken. The set was decked out with period furniture of exactly the same type that my grandparents’ house had once contained. Sat looking at the stage before curtain up, I was transported into a world of memories.
The RSC’s 50th birthday revival of The Homecoming also chimed with contemporary events in 2011. Its opening coincided with the publication of “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” by Catherine Hakim, a book which pointed out that women have something that men desperately want and that they should extract value from this situation.
Viewed in this light, The Homecoming appeared to be the story of a woman who had taken these conclusions very much to heart.
But at the start of the performance the focus was on the men in the family. Max rummaged for nearly a minute in the sideboard drawer looking for his scissors bringing a note of comedy to the first moments of the play. The verbal scrapping between the family members made them look like a bunch of thugs: not the kind of environment to produce a professor of philosophy.
Jonathan Slinger as Lenny cut a subdued but menacing presence. He adopted a quiet, childish voice when jokingly pleading with his father Max not to hit him.
When the estranged Teddy and his wife Ruth walked through the door into the house, they paused in the hallway before stepping down into the main part of the stage representing the living room. This was a series of slow and deliberate movements which made it look as if they were astronauts stepping onto the surface of an alien world.
But of course Ruth was the real alien. She was self-possessed and uncontrollable, as Lenny soon found. Ruth’s slightly sarcastic “Good” in reply to Lenny’s statement that Max would be pleased to see her, brought a biting “What did you say?” in reply. Lenny’s snarling caused Ruth’s follow-up “Good” to be more polite, but she was not contrite. This initial skirmish showed her to be in control and Lenny to be brittle.
Lenny tried to impress by regaling her with a story of his toughness. As the details emerged about his thuggishness, Ruth did not react. She seemed unconcerned, as if this tale of violence and prostitution were nothing out of the ordinary.
After the famous confrontation over the glass of water, culminating in Ruth challenging Lenny “Why don’t I just take you?” she got up from her seat and took the glass over to Lenny and asked him to have a sip. This was more confident and assured than the text’s stage direction that has Ruth simply offer the glass to Lenny while seated.
The start of the second half showed Ruth in a more traditional female role. The men came into the living room from the dining room in a fog of cigar smoke. Ruth shuffled around offering them coffee. She seemed to enjoy fitting in with this hypermasculine environment that the men has suddenly created around them. Ruth appeared as docile and compliant as a geisha.
Ruth looked at Max and looked Joey up and down, a first indication of her attraction to the boxer.
Her apparently submissive female behaviour, handing round coffee for the men smoking their cigars, was suddenly undercut. Ruth took a cup of coffee and walked over to Lenny with it.
Lenny and Ruth’s positions and movements precisely replicated the earlier scene in which Ruth, alone with Lenny, had showed her dominance of the situation by taking the glass of water to him and ordering him to take a sip. The only difference was that this sequence was now part of a larger group scene.
Both the audience and Lenny had now been reminded that she had a power of her own.
Lenny taunted Teddy with a philosophical discussion. Sensing somehow that she was being ignored, Ruth punctured this dry technical discussion by doing a Basic Instinct leg cross, accompanied by a speech that drew attention to her physicality.
Once the room was empty, Ruth sat in Max’s chair the symbolic throne of power in the household, curled up and sniffed its pillow. Lenny joined her. When she asked him if he liked her shoes, it was obvious from her posture that she meant her legs.
Oblivious to her husband’s requests to leave, Ruth remained and danced slowly and receptively with Lenny. When Joey took over from Lenny and danced with Ruth, he threw her down onto the floor and writhed on top of her. This replaced the fumble on the sofa and roll onto the floor. The action then continued as per the stage directions when Lenny touched Ruth with his foot as she lay on the ground.
She pushed Joey away and stood up, shouting out her requests for food and drink angrily and impetuously. This was an interesting directorial choice. Why, if she has discovered that she can use her erotic capital to get what she wants, is she upset on discovering this power?
Lenny searched in the sideboard for his cheese roll and as the main doors opened a menorah could be seen tucked away inside. This was the only indication, apart from a slight hint of accent from Max, that this was a Jewish household. It was a strange detail to include in a production because it was a blink-and-miss-it moment, but presumably a deliberate directorial decision with some relevance to the interpretation of the play.
The incident with the cheese roll was also a piece of period detail in that it showed a world before clingfilm and fridge storage of snacks.
The real twist in the play came when the family decided that Ruth could stay and provide them with domestic and sexual services, and also go on the game in order to pay for her keep. Teddy had to undergo the humiliation of his wife’s willing subservience to the family’s demands. As he mildly protested at events, his father Max summed it up nicely “What do you know about she wants, eh, Ted?”
She came downstairs, heard the family’s offer and, as Karim’s book suggests, exploited her erotic capital by bidding up her demands.
Final image of patriarch Max slumped begging in front of her was dreamlike in its symbolism suggesting the collapse of an insubstantial world of male power.
But did that world really collapse?
Both the play and Karim’s book can be criticised for confusing profitable subservience with power.
Ruth cashes in to collect her “honey money”, but it comes at the price of being a skivvy and a prostitute, albeit a high-class one. While the men, Max foremost among them, appeared to be the weaker at the end of the play, they had in fact determined the life that Ruth would live.
Put another way, how exactly have the men in The Homecoming lost out? If Ruth is getting what she wants, then so are they.
The casting of both Aislín McGuckin and Jonathan Slinger in this production evoked parallels between Ruth and Lenny and their characters in this season’s RSC Macbeth.
There were similarities in that both sets of characters existed in a relationship in which the female partner possessed more drive and backbone than the male. Lady Macbeth’s “Infirm of purpose” could just as well have been Ruth’s cry of triumph at Lenny and the rest.
Macbeth, like Lenny, thought he was a tough guy, but was shown to be vacillating and easily duped.
The play has not lost any of its power to disturb. The way in which The Homecoming unsettles its audience is more pertinent to its lasting appeal than its ability to provide satisfactory resolutions to its sexual politics.
Betrayal, Comedy Theatre London, 12 August 2011
There were several reasons for seeing this play a second time, not least the excellent cast and in particular the luminous presence of Kristin Scott Thomas as Emma.
A second look can often bring out subtle details in a production that were missed or forgotten. But the overall quality of this production made it a landmark in the play’s performance history and therefore worth seeing in its own right.
On this second view I was struck by just how often Emma’s husband Robert played by Ben Miles stroked and groomed his wife’s hair and body. It brought home the extent to which he was infatuated with her, but also an underlying fear of losing her, as if he had constantly to reinforce his relationship with her by making minor physical contact.
There is something in the nature of the play Betrayal itself that rewards repeated viewing. The play is carefully crafted and its dramatic payload requires focus and concentration to feel its full impact.
Minor elements suddenly take on new meaning when seen in the light of events later in the play. For this reason, viewing the play involves of a complex process of continuous reassessment. Because someone fresh to the play can have no idea of what will ultimately turn out to be significant it is perfectly possible to see the play once and not appreciate its full subtleties.
This is fundamentally different to the kind of additional wisdom gained from rewatching the classics, such as Shakespeare, because it is a product of the structure of the drama.
We are not watching Lear and suddenly seeing a new psychological insight which has remained latent in the text and has been brought out by a particular actor’s performance.
This is more like suddenly discovering a missing piece from a self-assembly unit and finding the place where it fits.
The missing piece of the play’s puzzle that appeared this time was Jerry’s discovery that Emma had lied to him about events in Venice. This was one of the multiple betrayals couched within the intricacies of the work.
In scene five, a pivotal scene set in Venice, Emma confessed to her husband about her affair with Jerry. Immediately afterwards in scene six, Emma met up with Jerry in their nest. When questioned about the planned trip to Torcello, she said that they did not go because the speedboats were on strike. Jerry accepts this story.
However, in the subsequent scene he hears from Emma’s husband Robert that he had gone to Torcello by speedboat. Jerry was surprised and commented “Ah. I thought” but when asked what he meant, he followed up his note of doubt by saying that he thought that the trip to the island was by gondola.
This was excellent backtracking and prevented him from revealing that he had already discussed the events of this holiday with Emma. But Emma had told Jerry that gondolas were not used to reach the island, so Jerry is in turn lying to Robert.
This means that Emma’s very significant deception of her lover, the first time that a crack appears in their relationship is something that can only be seen by re-examining a rather bland statement about Venetian public transport in the light of a slightly different statement by another character in the following scene.
Even the fact that Jerry notices that Emma has not told him the truth can remain hidden because of the clever way that he disguises his recognition behind some waffle about thinking that Torcello was reached by gondola and not by speedboat.
It is perfectly possible to watch the restaurant scene and not notice the significance of Jerry’s comments, taking them at face value, much as Robert does, and pass over them completely.
Yet this web of detail contains within it the first blow that begins to fragment the fragile extra-marital affair at the heart of the play.
The only problem with plays like Betrayal, which, like Cleopatra, make hungry where most they satisfy, is the long interval between significant productions. Whereas Lears and Hamlets seem to come along in packs like buses, we have to wait years for a modern classic such as Betrayal to be revived.
Betrayal, Comedy Theatre London, 22 June 2011
Betrayal told the story of the love triangle between Emma (Kristin Scott Thomas), her husband Robert (Ben Miles) and his best friend Jerry (Douglas Henshall).
Tales of marital infidelity are ten a penny. But Pinter’s play added an extra dimension to the illicit nooky narrative by recounting events in reverse chronological order.
The piece began in the aftermath of the split between the married couple at the centre of the action and spiralled back in time through a period of ten years to the start of the affair.
This made for a tense, gripping experience as the play progressed. And we were sometimes wrong-footed.
Emma told her lover Jerry that Robert had found out about the affair the previous evening. When Jerry visited Robert to broach the subject, the wronged husband appeared at first to be glaring at him.
However, Robert announced that he had known about his wife’s adultery for years, which meant that what seemed initially to be freshly stoked fury had to be reinterpreted as some other state of mind.
Our awareness that Robert had known about the affair between Emma and Jerry for several years made the subsequent scenes taking place further back in time deliciously ironic. The audience could relish the undercurrent of aggression in Robert’s treatment of Jerry, and Jerry’s complete failure to recognise it.
As deceit and betrayal led to reticence, the famous Pinter pauses went beyond mere stylistic quirk to portray with extreme realism how on occasion a refusal to speak says more than words ever can.
With so much of the dialogue consisting of layers of deception, the silences were some of the only moments in the drama when the characters were being truly honest with each other.
But when they did speak, the excellent cast made the most of the delectable writing. Robert’s reaction to Emma admitting to her affair for instance:
Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something like that, something along those lines.
Robert’s pithy summation of the insouciance he detected among the residents of their holiday destination “Venetian je m’en foutisme” applied a French term to an Italian attitude to create a memorable phrase.
The reverse ordering of events caused seemingly unimportant details mentioned in passing to take on new significance as the play went further back in time.
Watching the play involved taking in new information and simultaneously reinterpreting initial impressions of the previously viewed chronological future of the story.
As the lovers abandoned their love nest in Kilburn, Emma chose not to take the tablecloth she had bought in Venice.
In the next scene we saw how Robert discovered the truth about his wife’s affair while they were on holiday in Venice. Abandoning that souvenir of the city began to look like Emma disposing of a reminder of troubled times.
“Well, I would remember that” was Jerry’s cryptic comment after mentioning that Emma’s son Ned was five years old. Precisely why Ned’s age was so firmly imprinted in Jerry’s mind was revealed later.
Emma had become pregnant with Ned during their affair. As Jerry had been in the US at the time, she knew the child to be Robert’s. Ned’s age was therefore not a random fact Jerry had recollected: it related to a significant event in his own life, the year in which his lover told him of her pregnancy by her husband.
When we reached the end of the performance, at the moment when Jerry first drunkenly made advances to Emma at a party in 1968, we saw them hold hands for the first time.
This prompted recollections of the solitary reunion at the start of the play with Emma’s odd question to Jerry: “Ever think of me?”
In the context of the overall story, it was possible to reinterpret this meeting between the divorcing Emma and her former lover Jerry as an attempt to reignite the affair.
The structure of the play displayed a neat symmetry in that both the first and last scenes of the play depicted the couple coming together: the first (chronologically last) time with Emma taking the initiative and the last (chronologically first) time with Jerry making the moves.
Kristin Scott Thomas radiated throughout. Her stage presence was classy but fragile, like a bone china tea cup. This was a celebrity casting that delivered real substance.
Moonlight, Donmar Warehouse, 21 May 2011
This was a strange piece of theatre.
On one part of the stage a kind of English middle-class version of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers was played out: but with sarcasm and needlework rather than rasping and claustrophobia.
Over on the other side, two young men were giving us a passable précis of the London-based scenes from Withnail and I. The eighties feel was accentuated by a scene in which eyeliner was donned to the sound of Love Cats by The Cure. That at least one of them was an actor was hinted at by a quote from Hamlet.
Between them flitted a young woman in white bedwear, looking like she’d escaped from an episode of Twin Peaks. She stared off into space, her gnomic utterances creating a transcendent mood.
The play seemed to create a division between the seriousness of the adult lives, represented by David Bradley’s Andy, an old man on his deathbed, and his patient wife Bel, played by Deborah Findlay, and the silly, inconsequential levity of their sons Jake and Fred (Daniel Mays and Liam Garrigan).
To that extent it seemed to be a comment on maturity and inexperience. Although Lisa Diveney’s ghostly young Bridget, on the other hand, seemed to benefit from a more sympathetic portrayal. Being dead, she became entitled to some credit.
Brief appearances by Ralph (Paul Shelley) and Maria (Carol Royle) provided some context as people close to the couple.
New playwrights are often encouraged to rework their plays so that it no longer becomes possible to ‘hear the writing’.
But with this late Pinter work, a lot of the enjoyment came from the fact that the writing was totally on show.
We relished the jokey exchanges between the young men replete with lists of unrealistic names and exaggerated flourishes of rhetoric. We soaked up the poetry of Bridget’s closing description of a dark house deep in a moonlit forest.
And when David Bradley approached the audience and downed his whisky with the words “Bollocks to the lot of them”, we could only wish him well and consider the very short distance between Pinter’s own life and this charming vignette.