As I amble into the dark little studio of the Burton Taylor theatre, I am greeted with a grand drawing room vision, a table festooned with After-Eights, bottles of whiskey and a book of Picasso, and serenaded by the sweet melodies of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. I feel like I am in a time warp; I am not far wrong.
From the very start of Old Times, we are confronted with a psychologically and temporally remote world. The conversations of the three characters, Kate, her husband Deeley, and her “only friend” Anna, are obsessed with memories of the past, of cafes and strange encounters, only ever dated to twenty years ago, and strange disconnections between all three characters are manifest from the start.
For a full five minutes, while Kate and her husband Deeley discuss her “only friend” who has come to visit, Anna stands frozen like a ghost by the window. When she abruptly bursts in with an affectionate monologue on her times back in London with Kate, Kate meets it with stony silence.
From there the alienation burgeons with typical Pinterian subtlety, and, with masterful performances all round, the slightest changes of gesture and intonation become strange and sometimes menacing.
Pinter’s theme of the artificial, frail quality of memory permeates the play, as the characters struggle to recall events at first, but then claim to remember them well, as with a supposed encounter between Deeley and Anna in the ‘Wayfarers’ Tavern’; the characters of Anna and Kate gradually blur together, as Deeley cannot remember which of them he encountered at this tavern, and with which of them he went on the romantic cinema trip he dotes over.
Throughout, unassuming phrases cast doubt on the reality of it all, like Deeley’s “anyway, none of this matters.” We are made to feel more and more like we are spectators of Kate’s struggling psyche, hinted at by Anna and Deeley lingering over the observation that “she was always a dreamer.”
Pinter’s play remains an interpretive puzzle – this production makes no clear judgement on whether we are meant to see Anna and Kate as two sides of the same person, or Anna and Deeley as a competitor and an estranged lover killed by Kate, existing now in Kate’s psyche alone.
But the characterisation is uniquely tackled. Anna is portrayed as a posh dilettante, bubbly and impishly suggestive, rippling with sexual tension, Deeley a fond but domineering husband, and Kate, most impressively of all, lets a combination of embitterment and bewilderment peep through her taciturn manner.
It was a captivatingly estranged ensemble – I went away feeling as if these characters knew nothing of each other, and would know nothing even if they had known each other forever.
Old Times is playing at the Burton Taylor Studio until 8th November