So there’s these three people, right: creepily genial Deeley; his quiet wife, Kate; and chatty Anna, who is Kate’s best and only friend, though Deeley has never actually met her until now. Er, except maybe he has; maybe he used to stare up her skirt down the pub; maybe the three of them actually used to spend a lot of time together; maybe Kate and Anna are the same woman; maybe the three of them are actually dead.
Got that? Great! Now just bear in mind that Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams are alternating the parts of Anna and Kate in Ian Rickson’s potent revival of Harold Pinter’s uncompromising 1971 psychodrama and you’re golden.
In fact, if you’re just going to see ‘Old Times’ once, there’s no need to worry about the high concept role switching gubbins: the production’s unsettling tidal ebb of emotional powerplay is equally effective with both set ups of actresses.
However, if you feel like ponying up twice, you’ll get your money’s worth: Williams offers more naturalistic takes, a shy Kate and a gregarious Anna; Scott Thomas is edgier and more stylized, her Kate haughty and her Anna dotty. All four readings are superbly realised and justified; Scott Thomas as Kate and Williams as Anna offers a more claustrophobic, nerve-wracking 80 minutes; the other way round is funnier and easier going; both are hauntingly brilliant.
And both are grounded by the Rufus Sewell’s searing turn as a swaggering, Mephistophelean Deeley. A perma-grinning, genuinely terrifying presence, he sits in a comfy chair, suavely terrorizing the two women with hard streams of oddly pronounced non sequiturs.
Not a lot more than that actually happens. Yet much as ‘Old Times’s two halves essentially consists of two long, awkward conversations, the flashes of despairing rage that cut through Deeley’s façade as the women’s indifference to him mounts are as unnerving as any Jacobean bloodbath; that goes double for the final, disturbing emergence of Kate as dominant personality (in both versions).
‘Old Times’ bears up to a multitude of interpretations; it also defies them all. But whatever you make of it, Pinter’s prose here constitutes some of the most brilliantly idiosyncratic in the British canon. And in Rickson’s masterful production the nostalgia, menace and surreal wit of this masterpiece slip by like a fever dream. Andrzej Lukowski