Genre: Play, Drama, Revival; Starring: Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly, Eve Best; Writer: Harold Pinter; Director: Douglas Hodge; Opening Date: Oct. 6, 2015
“There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened,” says Anna (Eve Best) in Old Times.
Watching this tense, suspenseful update of Harold Pinter’s 1971 drama, you might find yourself questioning what that really means. Is the past really what you remember? Is it what you only think you remember? Or is it what you convince yourself that you remember, in order to justify the stories you’ve told yourself about your life?
In Old Times, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the three, but the play keeps you guessing the whole time. That’s a big part of the fun — if it’s possible to find “fun” in a play this dark. In the beginning, the only thing the audience knows for sure is this: Deeley (Clive Owen) and his wife Kate (Kelly Reilly) are expecting Kate’s old friend Anna for dinner at their country house in the isolated seaside town where they live. The two women were roommates in London 20 years ago and haven’t seen each other since. Deeley seems amused at the prospect of Anna’s visit, eager to hear what Anna’s life was like before she married him. But from the moment Anna arrives, filled with nostalgic tales of a vibrant Kate who Deeley might’ve never met (or maybe just refused to recognize), Anna and Deeley are locked into a battle over who knows and loves Kate best.
What follows is a ruthless power struggle in which no one keeps the upper hand for long. Is Kate’s bond with Anna more intimate than Kate’s marriage? Or has Deeley already won that competition, considering that he married Kate and whisked her far away from her best friend? Which of the conflicting memories reflects what really happened, and how have these memories affected Kate’s view of herself? I changed my mind about these questions at least seven times while watching the play, and once more while thinking about it two days later. When the preview I saw was over, couples from the audience lingered outside the theater, fiercely debating their theories about who was right and who was wrong — and whether “right” and “wrong” even exist within a play that may or may not present one character’s subjective point of view.
To reveal anything more about the plot would spoil some good twists. Suffice it to say that nothing much happens beyond three people talking, and yet Old Times feels like an action thriller. The breakneck banter is exhilarating. The casting of Owen as Deeley is perfect, because you might not see him as a vulnerable guy at first, and Deeley doesn’t see himself that way either — until, very suddenly, he does. Best brings a vulnerability to Anna that gives her character deeper motivations beyond control, making her relationship with Kate more emotionally fraught than it would’ve been if she’d simply played it as an intense girl-crush. And Reilly is the breakthrough here, playing Kate not just as a woman torn between Anna and Deeley, but one who’s forced to choose between her old self and the person she has become. Her performance might seem flat at first, but as time goes on, it’s clear that there’s a reason why Reilly plays Kate that way. By the end, this quiet character is far more psychologically complex than Anna or Deeley, both of whom get most of the play’s best lines.
But it’s not just the performances that make this production. The melancholy music, written by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, plays with repetition, rephrasing, and chronology in a way that flatters Pinter’s “memory play.” Christine Jones’ set design and Clive Goodwin’s sound design also create a rich backdrop for the subject matter. Seagulls echo in the background all night, grounding the drama in a place where water, sand, and sky bleed together, along with these three characters’ pasts. (“Living close to the sea… you can’t say where it begins or ends,” says Kate.) And the giant semi-transparent object lurking in the middle of the stage is delicious hunk of symbolism that begs to be deconstructed. Is it a block of ice that melts as time goes on, like memory? Is it a window, or a mirror, or both things at once, like these characters are to one another? Or is it a piece of fogged glass, purposely clouding any clear view? Your answer will depend on how you read the play, though just like with Old Times itself, it’s hard to say that any one reading is “the truth.” A–