By Paul Goodman
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This being a conservative site, it's necessary to say at the start it's possible to be a bad man but a good artist. I wouldn't dare to claim that Harold Pinter was a bad man, but he certainly had an immature streak. He seems to have lived in that condition of shouty revolt against authority that most people leave behind with adolesence – not treating, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, say, as real people at all, negotiating the inevitable compromises of government, but as one-dimensional monster puppets. So it was that the one-time conscientious objector ended up making excuses for "The Butcher of the Balkans". It is as though all the sense of shade and colour in his psyche was lavished on his art, leaving only black-and-white for him to scrawl in when it came to politics.
Now it is true that some people who are very far from being conservative dislike the work of this man of the left (which he basically was). The criticism is well-rehearsed: that Pinter is tricksy, glib and contrived, offering stagecraft rather than substance and sleight-of-hand rather than profundity – such as his insistence that a statement can be both true and false. The revival of his Old Times at London's Harold Pinter Theatre offers a chance to test this judgement. (The venue was originally the Comedy Theatre, and then renamed as the Harold Pinter Theatre. This spurred Tom Stoppard to ask Pinter whether he would be re-named Harold Comedy.) It is a spare play with a cast of only three: Deeley, played by Rufus Sewell; his wife, Kate and her – or their – old friend Anna.
On the evening I saw Old Times, Kate was played by Kristin Scott-Thomas and Anna by Lia Williams, though I gather that the two women will swapping the roles back-and-forth during the play's run. Were Kate and Anna once lovers? Did Anna betray Kate with Dooley? Will Anna win Kate back? Above all, why should anyone care? In one sense, the play's contours are as stark as Pinter's politics. All the familiar obsessive themes are there: the struggle for territory; male aggression; fear of womens' sexuality; ambiguity about what happened in the past. Did Dooley meet Kate at the cinema after a showing of "Odd Man Out" or did she see first the film with Anna? At the end of the play, the three protagonists sit separately, each isolated, but Dooley is weeping: he, you see, is the Odd Man Out.
The play was first published in 1971. Bits of it, inevitably, have dated. For example, the lesbianism (suggested rather than shown) would have had a novel edge then, but doesn't now. None the less, the essence of Pinter is there, undistilled and unchanged. His claim that something can be both true and false is trite, but there is a happier way, I think, of putting the point. We experience life through imagination. Two people may enjoy roughly the circumstances, but one will live happily and the other will not, because they've different ways of coming to term with the world. And memory and imagination are irrevocably intertwined. "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened," Anna says. "There are things I remember which may never have happened, but as I remember them so they take place."
This is the mood of "Old Times", which moves with the strange leaps but underlying logic of a dream. And though the play can be viewed in a realistic way, perhaps as a game played between the three characters, it is maybe best seen as a dream – a reflection of Dooley's fantasies and fears, jumping from one passage to another in the way that needles sometimes jumped on those old long-playing records. The play digs deep but runs narrow, perhaps because Pinter's claustophobic vision offers only part of the truth about life. Tellingly, there is little real emotional connection between the three protaganists. And while Dooley has reserves of Pinteresque aggression and a fund of goading jokes, the women are more sketchingly drawn: Kate, in particular, is a bit of a blank canvas – a male-eyed view of the unfathomability of women.
Scott-Thomas catches the reserve of the character and Williams captures the instrusiveness, the risk-taking quality, of Anna's bid to depose Dooley and win her old lover back. Sewell brings real charm to Dooley. If you have no patience for Pinter, the compressed poetry of his writing ("Sometimes I take her face in my hands and look at it…Yes, I look at it, holding it in my hands. Then I kind of let it go, take my hands away, leave it floating") will pass you by – as will its eruptions of wild extravagance. But there is a moral in this play, standing square amidst the tricks of the light. We yearn for the past. But it can't be brought back – and it's dangerous to try to do so. "Seems like old times," Diane Keaton sings in "Annie Hall". "Making dreams come true/Doing things we used to do." And then it all begins to go wrong for Woody Allen.