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These foolish things
it had occurred to me in advance that Old Times, Harold Pinter's new play, was probably an overdue tribute to his most loyal admirer, Mr Harold Hobson' (conceiv- ably with' a sequel already planned honour- ing MrIrving Wardle who, to thea tre people, is, of course, 'Young Times'). As it dis- appointingly happens, though, it's just an- other memory play—taking a long look back at the roots of a marital relationship —which might as easily have been called Forget-Me-Not-Lane if Peter Nichols hadn't snaffled that title for a play that is similarly rueful in theme but a lot livelier in action.
The Royal Shakespeare Company staged Old Times at the Aldwych last week, billing it as Pinter's first 'full-length' play since 1965, but that's pushing it a bit. Even with an extended interval, it's all wrapped up well inside two hours, and a production taken at a fast clip and cutting out pauses and silences (Pinter and his director, Peter Hall, could write marvel- lously engaging essays, I'm sure, on the differences between pregnant pauses and golden silences) might get through it in twenty minutes. But let me not give the ignorant impression that I don't know that all those bits when no one is saying any- thing (or, if you like, everyone is saying 'nothing) are the quintessence of Pinter. Everything is between the lines, as it were; which is a useful thing to latch on to if it should cross your mind that there's no- thing much actually in the lines. That, I'm sorry to say, is a thought that crosses my mind with numbing regularity. There is a broad span of opinion on Pinter's work. Mr Hobson, the sage of the Sunday Times, has sometimes felt it a pity that Shakespeare isn't still alive so that Mr P could give him a few hints; whereas Mr Milton Shulman of the London Even- ing Standard admits to being always un- sure whether he has `been subjectedto a valid dramatic experience or merely an enigmatic legpull'; and some of my more impatient correspondents, so far from en- tertaining any nonsense about valid dra- matic experiences, boil over dementedly at my mildest suggestion that Pinter some- times displays, at least, a sharp sense of comedy. I should also allow him, here and there, a vagrant poetic feeling for the half- comprehended disappointments of life, but when I go looking for valuable and signifi- cant insights in the plays, opaque shutters slam across my line of vision.
Of the appearance of significance there is no lack. The surfaces of Pinter plays are littered with that kind of fool's gold; but pitching in like some sunstruck pros- pector, I find small pickings. Let us dwell upon a typical example.
Old Times, we are told, takes place in a converted farmhouse; it is autumn, and it is night. While these facts emerge on the stage, a point is made of including the in-
formation in the programme, leading to an immediate suspicion that the facts may be terribly vital, and consequential frustra- tions when the vitality remains elusive.
The programme, no less pointedly, does not say 'the time is the present,' and per- haps it isn't. Do we risk missing some precious nugget of meaning if we fail to dig into that? There is some evidence that the time is actually five or six years ago, for the youthful memories of the play's three characters are said to be specifically of twenty years ago—and they would seem to be of 1946 or thereabouts.
The characters are introspective types, wholly absorbed by their own emotions, and there are no references to any national or international events that would identify the period, but there's much talk of seeing a film called Odd Man Out, which was around at that time, and memories are sparked by carefully chosen popular songs (Lovely to Look At, These Foolish Things and All the Things You Are) written a few years previously but reasonably acceptable as favourites of romantically-minded teen- agers as late as 1946; but not, however, as late as 1951, which would have to be accepted if the play were taken as happen- ing in 1971. These are foolish things, in- deed, but its just the kind of seam to be investigated when prospecting for signi- ficance in a Pinter piece.
No question, for instance, but that that film title was significantly selected. They all harp on about Odd Man Out so much. The man Deeley remembers that he first met his wife. Kate, when he picked her up at the cinema watching this film; but the wife's friend of those days, Anna, in- sists that it was she who went with Kate to see it. It's never certain whether Kate saw the picture twice, or whether one of them is lying or misremembering, but it is certain that poor old Deeley is himself an odd man out. There he is, comfortably if not ecstatically married to Kate and chat- ting about Anna, whom Kate hasn't seen for twenty years, and Deeley gets this nig- gling feeling that there was more in the girls' friendship than he guessed at the time (nothing definite, you understand, but the conversation is 'linty and the pauses are preggers all right); and then Anna turns up–• .stepping out of the shadows where she has been, confusingly, lurking all the time—and they all reminisce porten- tously, and none of the reminiscences quite match. Did Deelcy know Anna in the old days, as he claims and as she denies? Did Anna steal Kate's underwear, or did 'Kate give it to her? What was the 'mean- ingful' undertow in all that chat between Deeley and Anna about Kate's cooking and bathing? Have the girls faulty mem- ories, or do they wilfully lie, or has Deelcy simply wrapped his own memories in a cocoon of fantasy to avoid facing the truth about Kate, or about Anna'?
Frankly these problems didn't strike me as momentous enough to be worth too much effort in solving them. I find it a little difficult to care very much about Pinter's people, because they rarely seem like recognisable human beings. If the situation here seems a long way from reality, 1 can toss you the theory that, while there are three players on the stage, there are really only two characters: that Kate and Anna are different aspects of the same woman, both known to Deeley whose realisation that he has always been outnumbered in what he had thought was single combat sets him blubbing in quiet despair as the play ends. He's probably been dead for five years, and the play is all happening in the mind of Kate-Anna. Even as I in- dulge this fancy, I am wryly aware that my anxiety to seem helpful has conned me into trying to pin a meaning on Pinter. (For my encore, I'll try nailing a cus- tard pie on the wall.) But you may like to toy with the notion while watching the play; I'm afraid it doesn't cover the fact that Anna is said to have a husband in Sicily., but you can't have everything.
Some highly experienced Pinter hands are concerned in the enterprise: as well as Mr Hall, who directs it with the loving reverence most of us might reserve for handling rare Ming or the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is the designer John Bury, whose sets are marvellously composed. at once striking and restful; and Vivian Mer- chant is in it, of course. playing Anna in that peculiarly detached way of hers, and with all those studied gestures, roguish side-glances and secret smiles that her admirers dote upon. A cool customer, than whom marble is not more arch, Miss Mer- chant is usually said to exude a veiled sensuality, and I feel miserably deprived in confessing that from me it couldn't be more veiled if she were exuding it in a closed tent. The other two players are new, I think, to Pinter territory, but Dorothy Tutin's Kate, a slyly enigmatic elf, and Colin Blakely's Deeley, desperately trying to cling to a confidence that is disappearing in the conversational quicksands, are both impeccably inscrutable.