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.