Peter Hall seems to have reached a stage in his long and illustrious career where he’s revisiting plays that have a special personal significance for him. Having done this recently with Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, he now turns to Pinter’s classic Old Times, the premiere production of which he directed in 1971. The play was dedicated to Hall and given to him by Pinter as a 40th Birthday celebration. Not a bad little present and it’s not surprising that the veteran director would want to pull it out of the cupboard and dust it off.
Not that it’s a work in need of sprucing; a characteristic of writing this good is that it doesn’t date. Something else I’ve noticed about Hall of late is that he seems to take these difficult plays (he did the same with both of the Beckett texts) and renders them accessible and entertaining for a modern audience. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s a danger that, in attempting to make them palatable to a regional touring audience, something gets lost along the way. For me, the Beckett productions were more successful in this respect than this Pinter revival.
In casting well-known TV and stage names (Neil Pearson, Susannah Harker and Janie Dee), Hall could be accused of catering for an audience that needs a softening of this ambiguous and challenging text. The play runs for just 70 minutes but has a 20 minute interval, an opportunity for escape to the bar, that essential requirement of commercial theatre.
The production itself isn’t quite hard-edged enough despite an underlying, at times overt, aggression in the performances. With Janie Dee’s character Kate, this is a passive aggression as she reclines and lets her husband and “best” friend hack away at each other. With Pearson’s Deeley, it is all too obvious and verges on the violent, while Harker’s True Blue woman in black, who needs three sugars in her coffee, is a constantly undermining presence.
It is all played naturalistically and doesn’t quite pay homage to the strangeness of Pinter’s writing. Paradoxically, this makes it even more mysterious because it lulls us into a false sense of security. It could almost be a standard love triangle, familiar from many a commercial touring play, but veers off in unfathomable directions which can leave an audience baffled. Lucy Hall’s impressive naturalistic set, contained within a claustrophobic capsule, adds to the atmosphere of ordinariness, which belies the play’s mysteries.
As with his Beckett productions, what Hall undoubtedly brings to the text is a sense of its musicality the rhythms, silences, sudden changes in direction and immersion in strange and beautiful language. He is a master conductor and the architecture of the piece is wonderfully delineated. He also brings out Pinter’s black humour fully and there are a lot of laughs to be had.
Old Times plays at Richmond Theatre until 7 April and then continues its UK tour in Windsor, Bath and Malvern.