By Mike Savill
Some pieces of theatre are designed to entertain, to elicit emotional experience – laughter, tears, edge of the seat thrills but nothing more, clear cut, brightly shaded and obvious with barely any room for an artistic manoeuvre. Others speak of the human condition or a particularly pertinent theme of the ages but are wrapped up in a conventional narrative so that the viewer can take or leave as he or she sees fit. And then there are those plays, some might consider them art house, which absolutely demand intellectual engagement and rely wholly on the investment of the viewer to fully crack; they have no definitive meaning and one viewer’s take on it might be hugely different to their neighbour’s. Much of Howard Pinter’s oeuvre falls into this latter category of enigmatic assemblages, and ‘Old Times’ is more characteristic than most.
Here is a play in abstract – a supposed straightforward meeting between a man and two women who appear to have a shared history but presented in a spiky, episodic fashion, full of non sequiturs, contradictions and lapsed chronologies creating an ambiguous and obfuscating ambience that absolutely requires an audience to think or be left in the cold. This is challenging theatre and not for everyone but it is testament to the rich diversity at BLT that it does not baulk at such a challenge and Colleen Batson’s debut production at the theatre was one perfectly suited for the intimate and introspective ambience of the bar.
Straightforward in set, here is not a play that relies on visual pyrotechnics or extravagant light and sound – although the musical choices and ambient jazz was very much in keeping with the mood and evocation of time – the bar was transformed into a room in a house by the sea owned by Deeley, a film director, and his wife Kate. For all intents and purposes they are having a guest to dinner, a mutual friend Anna. Or are they? And here’s the rub. As Pinter himself says, “What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.” Here is a play in abstract, it is about memories, past and present and perception. Is the whole thing taking place in Deeley’s head? Are Anna and Kate two sides of the same woman? Is it all going on inside Kate’s mind? There is evidence in the play to suggest all three and, no doubt, more interpretations. The piece therefore is something of a tabula rasa on which audiences must imprint their own interpretations. In keeping with this idea performances seemed underplayed, ambiguous, not steering viewers in a particular emotional direction that would reveal all definitively – a bold choice for many used to heightened naturalism of the stage but, for myself, compelling.
Simon Holland, no stranger to Pinter, offered a modulated and inward focussed Deeley. There was a languidness to his characterisation, demonstrating subtle echoes of emotions as memories were recalled about cinema visits and lurid experiences with holed stockings. This was very much in keeping with the, at times, dreamlike, abstract tone of the piece and undoubtedly demanded a considerable degree of concentration and confidence to present a very different set of theatrical qualities than more traditional expository theatre.
In juxtaposition to Holland’s Deeley, Laura Ings Self’s Kate was an exercise in restraint. Here is a character who doesn’t say much throughout a lot of the piece but is a continual, almost wraith-like presence in the room feeding many of the interpretations derived from the dialogue around and about her. There was something ethereal about this performance, as if Kate were dislocated from the action which heightened the feeling that this was a piece of theatre in the mind and this abstraction was presented with a deftness and poise which drew the eye as much to see her reactions, or lack of them, as to hear her words.
As the visiting Anna, Alison Green again showed a confidence that suggested more to the character than initially meets the eye, her presence a powerful and positive one whenever she took the stage. Again, here was an assured performance that played with naturalism and familiar expectations, teasing audiences into interpretation from a stare across the room or a distant look out if the window.
Undoubtedly this was a well-conceived and well executed piece; Coleen is no stranger to tackling more challenging drama and undoubtedly ‘Old Times’ made an impression. It wasn’t for everyone but the theatre would be a poorer place indeed if it was always about crowd pleasers and, as one who is still trying to figure out the meaning of it all as I type these words, I hope it is not too long before we see a return from Mr Pinter to the Little Theatre stage.