Another long exhausting day,
Another thousand dollars,
A matinee, a Pinter play,
Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s.
I’ll drink to that.
And one for Mahler!
– “The Ladies Who Lunch”, from Stephen Sondheim’s Company
Prior to Friday evening, this was my only reference point for Harold Pinter. So, I Wikipedia’d him before the show:
Pinter’s dramas often involve strong conflicts among ambivalent characters who struggle for verbal and territorial dominance and for their own versions of the past; stylistically, these works are marked by theatrical pauses and silences, comedic timing, irony, and menace.
Yes, yes and yes. This is exactly what I saw Friday night. Three highly ambivalent characters saying cutting things in crisp British accents, and then staring at each other for long pauses, and/or pouring tea. I’m not sure if I really cared for it all that much, but it did inspire a good post-theatre conversation with my friend Beth, who’s a fan of the piece and urged me to see it with her.
A quick overview: Married couple Deeley and Kate discuss an old friend and former roommate of Kate’s (her only friend, not necessarily her “best” friend, she clarifies), who is coming for an unexpected visit. It’s not really stated that it’s unexpected, but implied. Deeley spends some time trying to decipher Kate’s relationship with this friend, Anna, since Kate’s never spoken of her prior to this visit. However, Kate reveals very little, as if she can’t recall any details. Kate seems tired, passive — dead, even. Anna, the antithesis of Kate, finally arrives — bubbly, charming, sly. During the visit, Deeley and Anna talk about Kate as if she’s not even there, with highly conflicting memories and ideas of who Kate is/was. Kate remains passive, but gets irritated and nervous and declares that she’s going to take a bath, leaving Deeley and Anna with each other. End of act one (which is just over 30 min). Act two opens with Deeley and Anna confirming a prior relationship between them. Kate comes back from her bath, and the entire conversation is turned on its head when Kate decides to share her memory of how she recalls her relationship with Anna, which empowers Kate, destroys Deeley and renders Anna irrelevant, and/or dead.
It’s a deceptively simple play. On the surface, it seems to be about nothing – bickering and verbal power play. But what Beth and I came to understand (or myself, really), is that Old Times was about reality and power, enveloped by yards of subtext. Reality is perception, perception is reality. Relationships are founded on a shared history with another person, and should that person with whom you’ve shared a history with recall that memory differently, does that change your reality? And, in doing so, does that warrant a shift in power?
Kate represents an empty vessel, one who is swayed by Anna and Deeley’s perception of her as they construct who she is by how they talk about her — usually in the third person while looking directly at her. Kate at first seems to bend with whatever story she is hearing at the moment, until the bitter end when she turns the tables and claims her version of the past.
Watch out, I’m getting deep here.
Islands play a core theme, or motif, in this play — islands of thought, space, ideas. Each character has their own item of furniture they occupy — as if that space, or island, marks their version of reality. The final beat of the play underscored this idea, with a box of light framing the three spaces. Also, Anna is visiting from a remote island in Italy, and Kate and Deeley live in some remote country villa — removed from the influences of the outside world. It’s like Pinter has established a petri dish for the human experience, with Anna as the catalyst.
I also appreciated the shift of power. In the final moments, Kate moves from the passive role to the power figure, Deeley from the dominant role to the defeated one, and Anna is essentially erased.
Director James Bohnen has assembled a solid cast on a very bare stage. I’m assuming his goal is to keep the production as clean as possible as to not compete with Pinter’s deft and dense wordplay. Linda Gillum as Anna stood out for me — she was sly and coy with a touch of danger, as if she understood the control she had over this couple. Nick Sandys as Deeley delivered Pinter’s patented cutting barbs effectively, and his breakdown at the end was one of the only emotionally effective moments in the play (for me.) Chris Jones of the Tribune loved Jenny McKnight as Kate, but I wasn’t won over. She seemed too passive; too much blank-faced staring and occasional smirking. I felt nothing from her performance.
I’m not sure Pinter is really my thing, but I’m glad I saw this play.