The former Comedy Theatre in Panton Street has been home to seven plays by Harold Pinter in the last 21 years, plus four more productions directed by him. It is said that when an idea to rename the theatre in his honour was mooted during his lifetime, Tom Stoppard quipped: “Have you thought, instead, of changing your name to Harold Comedy?”
Kristin Scott Thomas (Anna), Rufus Sewell (Deeley) and Lia Williams (Kate) in Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Now, however, for the first time since the Comedy was posthumously renamed, there’s a Pinter at the Pinter and it is both a bold and a brave choice, and is being staged with a twist that is designed to amplify its experimental, cryptic and possibly unfathomable qualities. It may come dressed for success with three striking stars - two of them substantial names on both stage and screen in Kristin Scott Thomas and Rufus Sewell, while the third, Lia Williams, is one of our very finest stage actresses. She was directed by Pinter himself in the London premiere of Mamet’s Oleanna and has also appeared extensively in his plays in London and New York.
The twist is that the two women playing the man’s wife and one-time best (or perhaps only) friend are swapping those roles between them at different performances. That adds another tease and layer to the serial mysteries behind the play, though only critics and a few theatregoers with another £49.50 to spare to see the second version as well are likely to be privy to it.
Yet it is also more than just a creative indulgence or an actors’ whimsy. It is fascinating to see Scott Thomas shed her icy, brittle, forever enigmatic exterior as the wife to appear as the far more playful friend; she also brings unexpected humour to the latter part. Meanwhile, Williams - an instinctively warmer actress - imbues the wife with a watchful wariness, and the friend with the poise of a cat about to get the cream.
They revolve around Rufus Sewell as a man recalling the first time he saw the film Odd Man Out with his wife, and realising he may be an odd man out himself now. A memory play that is partly about the unreliability of memory, it has - in the words of Pinter biographer Michael Billington - “the seeming inevitability of a guided dream”, reflecting Pinter’s own memories. That dreamlike quality is spellbindingly realised in the shifting, subtle hues of Peter Mumford’s lighting, and in the precise articulation of its players.
Director Ian Rickson, a Pinter veteran who directed Pinter himself in his final stage appearance in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court and has since also directed Pinter’s The Hothouse at the National (which featured Williams) and Betrayal (also with Scott Thomas) at the Comedy Theatre, lends this intricately patterned and layered triangular drama a riveting intensity. It may be now familiar Pinter terrain, but an extraordinary cast make it fresh, fascinating and alive (even if one of its characters may quite possibly be dead).