To the Theatre Royal, Bath, yesterday evening, to see Old Times, by recent Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter.
This was not, I fear, a satisfactory evening. Pinter's 1970 play was originally directed by Peter Hall, both in London and on Broadway, and now he returns to the text for the first time in more than 35 years. The cast of three consists of Neil Pearson and Janie Dee as the married couple, with Susannah Harker as the enigmatic visitor.
In my extended essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I made the point that literary careers depend on chance (aka luck, randomness, karma) to a far greater exent than most people care to recognise. And this also applies in the theatre -- applies with knobs on, one might say.
Pinter's position is very simple. In 1958 he had a play called The Birthday Party produced in London. It ran for a week. The day after it closed, a glowing review by Harold Hobson appeared, and as Hobson was then the most influential theatre critic in London, people took a bit of notice.
Had Hobson's review not appeared, the likelihood is that Pinter would never have had another play produced. And, on the evidence of Old Times, I have to say that we would not have missed very much.
The simple truth is that, if Old Times were written today, by Joe Bloggs of Northampton, and submitted to the various 'new writing' theatres which claim to be looking for new talent, it would never be produced in a thousand years. But because it is written by a Nobel laureate, and acted by top-class professionals, and directed by a great master, we are all supposed to sit there dazzled. Well I didn't.
Given that the text is so unrewarding, one is obliged to concentrate on the acting and the direction. Which are certainly not without interest. Every word and gesture in this production is carefully considered, presumably by the actors and director working in concert, and they all do their best to breathe life and significance into it. But at the end of this short two-acter, the three actors looked exhausted; and well they might, because it's uphill work.
In such circumstances, one's mind wanders. And I found myself subjecting Susannah Harker to close scrutiny. Ms Harker, you may recall, first made a major mark as the young innocent who was seduced and corrupted by the wicked Ian Richardson in TV's House of Cards (1990). In the years since then, this actress has matured into a handsome, matronly forty-year-old. Precisely the sort of woman, in fact, that I find most attractive.
In Old Times, Ms Harker is required, by the exigencies of the plot (I used the word loosely) to wear a revealing skirt. And there is much talk, in act two, of people looking up said skirt. Indeed, director, costume designer and actress have arranged for this to be possible, and not only for Neil Pearson.
Unfortunately, Ms Harker spent most of the evening with her knees pointing away from me. And it was, I think, remiss of the director not to share things out more equally. If only I'd known, I would have booked seats on the other side of the auditorium.
Come the final curtain, however, and the usual deep bows from the knackered actors, I was rewarded by several glimpses of Ms Harker's splendid bosom. So the evening was not entirely wasted. But it was a damn close-run thing.