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Sunday, 16 February 2014

Old Times (Wheathampstead DS)

It is not easy getting your head around Pinter. Old Harold was not renowned for plot at the best of times. The Birthday Party is rich in menace and The Lover littered with eroticism, but most of his work relies on both actors and audience mining the subtext for meaning. Wheathampstead  have form when it comes to stretching their punters and Old Times is, arguably, the least accessible of plays from a master of elusive prose and elegant pauses. On and off stage, all need to work hard to get anything out of it. Take that plot for starters. It is complicated so you need to concentrate. Deeley is married to Kate and they live in a farmhouse near the sea. Kate’s friend from twenty years ago, Anna, pays them a visit. Have you got that? Good, because that folks is all there is. On the surface. No spoon feeding here. Told you it was difficult.
The three meet in a living room and a bedroom and exchange memories of a youthful past. Or do they? I have no idea. Memory plays tricks on us all and who saw who in bed and who looked up whose skirt is never made clear. Deeley may be the man and Anna may be the woman. I have a theory, you need them with Pinter, that Anna and Kate are actually two aspects of the same woman. One sensuous and slightly tartish, the other enigmatic and repressed. It’s a popular theory and it would certainly make sense if the husband was littered with disparate memories of a dead wife. But that’s the trouble with Pinter. You enjoy the richness of his poetic prose, here delivered with excellent precision from all three actors, but spend half your time trying to make sense of it all. Old Times is not so much a play as an examination on the mysteries of humanity.
To ensure that paying punters, brains heavily taxed, do not feel short changed you need to serve up all the rhythmically pointed conversations with an excess of Pinter style. The actors did pretty well, Sara Payne was especially impressive as the languid and enigmatic Kate, but they were not helped by Len Skilton’s unimaginative set. It was bog standard natural and I reckon the production would have benefited from a touch of ethereal presentation to signpost the complexities of piece and character. And, boy, were those characters complex. Irene Morris gave us an Anna who delivered speech with automotive rhythm both disconcerting and fascinating, and Robert Naylor-Stables drove the limited narrative with short, staccato, questioning stabs. Watched by the still presence of the troubled Kate it was all very Pinteresque and accurately paced. Director Robin Langer must have been well pleased with that impression even if, like me, he may have thought that the rendering of the old fifties songs only hinted at eroticism. Personally I would have preferred Deeley and Anna to have given us lashings of hidden lust in their incongruous collective crooning. But I am very demanding.
As the saying goes, things improved when we got to the bedroom. Deeley and Anna seemed obsessed by the bathroom habits of the offstage Kate and erotic pictures of towelling and powdering were expertly conjured. This heavily charged scene was underpinned by the return of the freshly bathed wife and even if we did not know what was going on, I for one was enjoying it. I know a sex scene when I see it. Even a subtle one. If that comment even half convinces only one of you that I know what I am talking about then this blog has miserably failed. Like most of Beckett and much of Bond, Pinter at his most inscrutable is maddeningly demanding. This one impeccably delivered the poetry and left us to work out the rest. Karen Prior mixed the sounds and Bob Parry served up some impressive lighting. Especially the sudden introduction of Anna. We know not where she came from and why. And that he says, desperately searching for a sign off line, was probably the point. It’s all in the memory.
Roy Hall