Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Harold Pinter: Old Times

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.


Anonymous said...

A pity His Grumpiness has not been having much luck at the theater lately!

Anonymous said...

Taleb's new book, The Black Swan, appeared here in the U.S. yesterday.

Howard Goldowsky

Anonymous said...

I just saw this play tonight, same production at the same theatre.
What in the name of God was that all about?
I am afraid if it had not been for the superb legs of Susannah Harker (and Janie Dee in the second half), I would have considered this a total waste of space.
Honestly, you should not have to have a degree in theatre or psychology to understand a 90 minute play.
Great acting as usual, no matter how crap the play, our actors in this country are almost always superb.

Anonymous said...

I've just seen Old Times at Theatre Royal, Bath. It was intended as a birthday treat! I do so agree with pmj. Does anybody, especially Harold Pinter, know what it was about? In fact, was it about anything atall? I do have a degree in English (First Class, as it happens) and it seemed to me that this is a classic example of Harold Pinter's Emperor's New Clothes. This is the second daft and incomprehensible play I've seen at Bath.(The other one was The Seafarers) For goodness sake, Theatre Royal management, get your act together and stop trying to make money out of old rope!

Anonymous said...

Harold Pinter is a superb playwright and the only reason you were not satisfied with the play and what happened is because when we go to the theatre or watch a film we expect a nice linear narrative that gives reasons and is easy to understand. We expect things to be in a nice package all presented nicely with a little bow. This play breaks these conventions. It is a play of real life and partial information, there are no answers to the questions you may have about this play and this is the way Pinter intended it. You need to look at your own life to understand the play and you will start to see parts of your own life in the play.

Pinter didn't win a Nobel Prize for nothing. You are of course allowed your own opinion but saying that Pinter only became what he is today because of one theatre review is absurd.

Anonymous said...

The woman in black Susannah, was the alter ego of Janie Dee, and not an actual person. Janie's character was frigid, and the woman in black was the person her husband wanted Janie to be hence all the legs and references to drying her after her bath.
It was a play about an empty marriage and the people we want others to be - I think.

Anonymous said...

What ignorant comments! This is a fantastic play. If you had any awareness of how pinter plays work you might have many more productive things to say.

The play is rich with ambiguity, power struggles and the pursuit and denial of finding truth. All this you have missed!

Luella said...

Ahem. The fact that you think the only good things to come of this performance are a revealing skirt and bare breasts shows that you have completely missed the point of the play. Pinter's work is powerful engagement of the "male gaze," the fact that women are subject to the "gaze" of everyone in society regardless of gender because of male dominance and objectification of women.

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