How Thom Yorke, an Apocalyptic Set, and Shorter Pauses Honor Harold Pinter’s Vision in ‘Old Times’

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Critics have divided along typical-to-Harold-Pinter lines in their reviews of Douglas Hodge’s Clive Owen-starring, Thom Yorke-scored Broadway production of the writer’s 1971 play, Old Times. Pinterian puritans have been put off by the “flamboyance” of this new production and its nominal bells and whistles (i.e., Thoms and Clives), while those who are averse to the playwright’s perceived seething slowness and — in the case of some of his older plays — unedited streams of consciousness are grateful to have a hypnotically beautiful set, score, and actor to hold their interest in this long poem of a play.

Hodge, however, will tell you that, as a Pinter enthusiast who considered the playwright a “father figure,” he’s actually more reverent toward the text than many assume. A good number of his directorial decisions seem to have come directly from his own friendship and ten-year working relationship with the playwright. While some may mourn the imposition of grandiose aesthetic flourishes on the typical British living room in his production, Hodge asserts that Pinter himself — who only states in the stage directions that Old Times happens within a room with two couches and an armchair in a converted farmhouse — may never have envisioned the piece’s look or sound to be depicted so literally. “I worked with Harold Pinter for so long, and I remember him talking about how he was sick and tired of drawing room plays,” Hodge tells Flavorwire, noting that Pinter even wrote that “he wanted to get rid of all the doors and windows and walls [in theater], and he meant it in terms of his mind, too.”

Such a notion is very applicable to the plot of Old Times, which sees a married couple — Owen plays Deeley and True Detective‘s Kelly Reilly is Kate — welcoming Kate’s former London roommate (Anna, played by Eve Best) into their country home. Together, the three reminisce, with their memories returning every so often to a metamorphosing image of their London bedroom. Soon, their recollections seem to compete, invoking the image of the room as a sort of battleground, where an act of violence retrospectively occurs, seemingly through its spoken fabrication in the present.

What’s lost in this production may be the powerfully tense contrast of a familiarly stuffy everyday space with Pinter’s eerie distortion of naturalistic speech, but what’s gained through the sound and expansive set is the feeling of being stuck somewhere in the chasm three characters’ contradictory memories open up. It’s an expressionistic rather than an intellectual interpretation. But for a playwright who’s been ballyhooed and treated with tiptoeing, long-pausing reverence because of his intellectualism, this shift is neither unwarranted nor undesirable.

There may still be reverence here, but there’s certainly no tiptoeing: Hodge described for the Roundabout’s lecture series how he became “firm friends” with Pinter in 1998 during a run of No Man’s Land, after he’d mildly questioned the notoriously “volatile and violent and irascible” playwright’s treatment of stage management. Pinter had taken off his jacket, and Hodge realized the writer “was about to attack” him. This somehow led to the pair working together for the next ten years, until Pinter’s death. After this decade of focusing almost solely on Pinter’s work, Hodge became more known as a musical theater actor (he appears below in his Tony-winning performance from La Cage Aux Folles — perhaps the quintessential opposite of Pinter’s perceived dramatic austerity).

With Pinter’s memory in mind, Hodge asserts that he’s abiding by the playwright’s desires by taking bold liberties — not with the work itself, but with how the work has historically been interpreted. Flavorwire spoke with Hodge about his divisive production of Old Times.

Flavorwire: Did you deviate from people’s ideas of Pinterian norms in the delivery of the text?

Douglas Hodge: There was one review that said something like [that] I’d taken out the pauses. But really, we couldn’t have been more religious in terms of, “you must stop here, and you must do a pause here.” My aim, when I act Pinter and when I direct Pinter, is you don’t go, “Ahhh, this is one of the favorite famous Pinter pauses.” You think, “This is organic, these people are talking to each other.” It may be kind of heightened, and there’s a fugue to it, but you don’t think, “Ahhh this is what they talk about when they talk about Pinter,” because then you’re out of the play and you’ve lost interest and you’re just looking at a museum piece.

Pinter himself deviated in the text a bit here, as I believe Clive Owen mentioned during a talkback, in that Old Times is one of his only plays where characters just break into song.

The songs, like much of the speech, are the tip of a dangerous and dark ice-crack — they, themselves, are perfunctory. So there is an element to it that’s similar to the epigrammatic quality of Coward and Wilde — there is an element that’s closer to that tradition than to, say, Strindberg. Harold was an actor who grew up doing old dependable drawing room plays, and he knew the parameters of that style just as Beckett did. He played to those conventions and exploded them. Just as in Coward and Wilde, who had polite, precise, concise lines, there was a massive undercurrent of true feeling beneath it — it wasn’t just style. To make it work as a whole, the guiding thing is the music of the text. If you treat the [long vs. short] pauses as a science, the play explains itself — it’s fantastically funny. If you say all the lines slowly and mysteriously people won’t have a clue what’s going on.

Speaking of music and “Pinter pauses,” a review I read before seeing the play said, “The celebrated Pinter pauses, which classically loom like a purpose-devouring black hole, are in this version plugged with electronic music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.” And that sort of led me to expect that any time a character spoke, Radiohead would blast in and interrupt.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Interestingly, during the play — that runs an hour and eight minutes — there are three minutes of incidental music. So there’s an hour and five minutes of the play running with no underscoring whatsoever. My biggest problem was to say to Thom Yorke, “I could have a whole evening of this, but the play is the thing.” And he couldn’t have agreed more.

What was it about his music that made you think it’d be a good match for Pinter?

I think Thom Yorke is a genuine artist of our time, as I believe Harold was. They’re two great contributors to how we live our lives. And I suppose I felt that, when I looked at the play, there’s sort of compulsive repetition to it. In other words, if it were a Pina Bausch dance piece, you know that the same movements would be repeated and repeated and repeated again, until they’re itchy and sore and neurotic. This play is a revisitation of memories, and I feel that some of Thom’s music especially speaks to that. So I emailed him and sent him the play and he actually knew it. He’d seen a production of mine in England. He read the play and said, “This is incredible. If I wrote any music, maybe it should go backwards.” And then he said, “But does need any music?” And I said, “Well, exactly.” The last thing [Yorke] wanted was a Thom Yorke evening. But then we started on a six-month email correspondence which was just delightful. Where I would say, “They go back in time at this point” or “We have a transition here that’s like a rat going around a treadmill,” and he would send little snippets of music that were maybe three minutes long and were so of the world. The first piece he sent became the piece that opens the play. It was a windswept, end-of-the-world piece. There were sirens from World War I in it, and he also used synthesizers from 1971 [when the play was written], which is the sort of detail I adore — that I’m sure only about three people in the universe will pick up on.

Set Model for ‘Old Times’ by Christine Jones

Despite the ungrounded nature of characters’ senses of self in this and many of Pinter’s plays, past productions have envisioned the set a bit more naturalistically. Why did you and set designer Christine Jones decide to break away from that?

Harold loved the Sartre play Huis Clos — it was very, very close to his heart. I know he didn’t want to write that, but that sort of claustrophobia, that hell that they’re forever condemned to sit in — is important to Old Times. I think, then, what I felt was, the three actors should almost be on plinths so well defined that we’re almost looking at beautifully lit gods. And then it was my job, within the structures of the power play, of the intimidation, of the bullying, to make it so taut and so tight that claustrophobia comes from that instead. I said to Christine, “Of course they’re in a converted farmhouse, of course they’re outside London, of course it’s 1971, but, frankly, they’re also at the end of the world, they’re also on top of a mountain, they could be three gods discussing the humans below, they could be in limbo or purgatory, all of these possibilities mustn’t be shut down.”

The play takes the form of its subject — the selective usage of memory. So it sort drifts and shapes and lifts and fogs and clears and comes back into focus, then reforms again. And Christine came up with this time-lapse photograph of a horizon [for the backdrop], which was very, very similar to the horizons that I’d seen in Suffolk and Norfolk, and I thought it was just perfect.

Now, since you first met Pinter working on No Man’s Land and are currently on Old Times, your experience knowing and working with him is bracketed by plays specifically about the fallibility of memory. Has this informed the way you think back on your own relationship with him?

Harold felt more and more that there is no past, there’s only the present, and every moment of the present holds the whole of the past. And he would say, “I remember this happening when we first met,” and I would say, “That’s simply not true,” and he would contend that his memory of it was more true than the facts of what happened. Which I would always say was preposterous. But I understood, as I worked on the play, how that’s true emotionally, and how there are things I remember now that I don’t think are true but are rather the essence of what I felt, especially if I’d been in love. He’s been very much on my shoulder and in the room as I’ve directed this play, when I’ve thought, “Am I going to put a bit of Thom Yorke music in — what would he say to that?” And I think the two of them would have had the most incredible discussion. He feels as much in my life as he was then, and I think that’s part of having reflected on his obsession with the whole subject of memory.

In working on a play full of so many unknowns — on a set that’s also been rendered in abstracts and symbols — how did you manage to get your actors’ own styles to cohere with one another, and with the overall vision?

Pinter wrote Old Times in three days. There isn’t in this work, as it might appear to be, a resting over every word for six months. It’s written in three days, in one great swoop of passion, and there are bits of it that don’t make sense, and bits that don’t add up, and he certainly wasn’t going to go back and change it. The sweep of bringing it into existence would seem false to him if he went back and tinkered with it later. So there needed to be an energy in the production that said, “This is not a precious thing.” We could go wrong, we could go off on some mad improvisation, but it’s put out there with tremendous energy and gusto. The real secret is that to play Pinter, you have to fill your larder with almost murderous, psychotic, jealous, deep-seated, huge emotions. You have to do an enormous amount of work on your backstory. You get yourself to the point where you’re feeling murderous, you want stab the other person or kiss them, and then you skip onstage and you’re as polite as can possibly be. And you manage every single feeling you have with the most inadequate words. Words are always tiny smokescreens or code or innuendo — and they’re always inadequate.