It is easy to be intimidated by a Harold Pinter play like “Old Times”, now running to November 29th in New York. The dialogue is straightforward enough, in that the audience understands the words; but the meaning—well, that is something entirely different. Pinter’s Old Times was first staged in 1971 and over the years the play’s male protagonist, Deeley, has been played by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Alan Rickman, Robert Shaw and Rufus Sewell; and now in the current production, Clive Owen, who shares the stage with Eve Best and Kelly Reilly.
The storyline in Old Times is simple enough. Deeley and his wife Kate, living in a seacoast house somewhere in England, are anticipating a visit from Kate’s old roommate Anna, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. Deeley questions Kate intensely about her friend, giving rise to just a hint that he might have known her in the past as well. When Anna arrives what ensues is a verbal fencing match between Deeley and Anna centering around who knew Kate first, and who had the most impact on her, suggesting a sexual rivalry. Ultimately it is revealed that there was apparently a past relationship between Anna and Deeley as well—‘apparently’ being the operative word here–because Pinter is as deliberately obscure here as he is with most of his works on stage and screen. At the end of this piece the audience is left wondering if they have been in a dream. If one is looking for a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end forget it. Remember Harold Pinter’s the French Lieutenant’s Woman?
As the play proceeds, there are shifts in the power dynamic between the three. Clive Owen’s Deeley at the beginning is smug and controlling, completely dominating Kate with an inquisitor’s line of questions about her friend. Then elegant Anna arrives, played with cool sophistication by Eve Best (who played the equally cool British doctor in Nurse Jackie) and she proves to be a match for Deeley in what is becoming a power struggle for Kate’s affections. Finally it is Kate who takes control in an ending that is so puzzling that when he played Deeley in 1984, none other than Anthony Hopkins asked playwright Pinter what it all meant; to which Pinter replied, “I don’t know—just do it.”
Obscure plot lines and dialogue are Harold Pinter’s hallmarks—along with silences—really long silences. Pinter likes the sound of words—the musicality of them—perhaps owing to the fact that he started his writing career as a poet. He told Charlie Rose that he begins a work with a single image in mind. He does not have a plot outline. “I start with a blank page, and words go on it—the lines are written with an intuitive process.”
This obscurity in plot and character might leave the impression that Old Times was tough sledding for the audience, but this is not the case. There are many funny lines in Old Times– indeed Pinter once told an interviewer that he considered all of his plays funny. Versatile Clive Owen gives us a louche, sneering Deeley who is reduced to blubbering in a fetal position by the end of the show. The ever elegant Eve Best gives a mesmerizing performance as Anna; and Kelly Reilly, who can be seen on this season’s True Detective, explodes with a soliloquy at the end that stands in contrast to the restrained Kate throughout most of the play.
It turns out there is no shame in not completely understanding a Pinter play. The Nobelist who died in 2008, once admitted that even he had no insight into his work. ”I cannot dictate to my characters—I follow the clues they give me.”