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.