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Old Times

A Recollection of Old Times

By Harold Pinter
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Landsburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011, Seats B–115&116 (front orchestra)
Directed by Michael Kahn

The Usual Suspects was a groundbreaking film not only for its Oscar-winning script and acting, but also for shattering the audience’s blind faith in the veracity of the flashback. The big reveal at the end is not only learning the identity of Kaiser Soyze, but, upon reflection, realizing that just about every piece of the story we just saw is suspect. Even if you watch it again for clues (as many have), those clues occur in a context that is itself unreliable. All we know for sure at the end is that the boat certainly exploded and Keeton (Gabriel Byrne) may or may not have been killed; that the character portrayed by Pete Postlethwaite may or may not have been a lawyer for Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) but he certainly worked for Kaiser Soyze in some capacity; and that Kaiser Soyze (always first and last name, I dare not do otherwise) may or may not be as dangerous as reported but he certainly is real and alive and has mastered one incredibly powerful weapon: the ability to turn himself into a myth, the only undeniable truth we witness as it occurs (though, at the time, we don’t realize we’re witnessing it).

Frankly, that’s more than we know for certain at the end of Old Times, because walking out of the theater we can’t be sure any of the characters we just watched for 90 minutes were even alive that whole time. The similarities, though, are in the narrative device of the flashback in the film versus the characters’ recollections in the play. Pinter in 1971 wrote a play far, far ahead of its time (and necessarily suited for our time) about how memories are never wholly factual; they are impressions rebuilt through the mind’s thought processes influenced by subsequent events and current context. In other words, memories are wholly suspect. They create myths. In the 2011 cultural climate of a short-memoried public manipulated by spin-control politicians who even have the aplomb to change chronicled historical recollections, Pinter’s point is eerily apt.

And memories can be used to establish power. When Anna (Holly Twyford) visits the English seaside home of old friend Kate (Tracy Lynn Middendorf) and her husband, Deeley (Steven Culp), old friend and husband compete for the wife's affections. The home is an all-white, 1970s’ hip modernistic set by Walt Spangler against which costume designer Jane Greenwood’s vaguely ’70s clothes defined the characters: Anna in a classic Mediterranean blue dress, Deeley in casual brown jacket, Kate in comfortable pink pants and, in the second act, a pink robe. The competition opens with Anna recalling hers and Kate’s bohemian young lives as roommates and Deeley reminiscing on his courtship of Kate. The two then go on the offensive with their memories; even though they initially said they had never met, Deeley was soon recalling a sluttish Anna and Anna remembered a vulgar Deeley. Their contest even involved who could remember the words to old standards that they each sing to Kate, who most of the while is simply—pliantly—off on her own thoughts like a cat, curled up and content (a personality trait common in both of the others’ stories of old).

For me, the key line came from Kate when she said, “You talk of me as if I were dead.” Pinter, I believe, made sure she used proper grammar, the subjective case. Anna, therefore, misunderstood her, thinking she’s talking in the past tense. Finally, Kate corrected her: “You talk as if I am dead.” For the first time, really, the conversation is in the present tense, but Anna and Deeley can’t compete in that realm. So, Kate took the offensive herself using the others’ weapon of choice: memory. She remembered seeing Anna dead 20 years ago, even described how her body looked lying on the bed; and then she remembered how, early in her relationship with Deeley, she tried to kill him. These memories may or may not be true, but the effect was to render Anna dead—she ended the play lying quietly on the bed—and Deeley inconsequential. He ended the play lost and sobbing uncontrollably. Kate ended the play as she had been throughout: contentedly gazing off to someplace, her memories proving the most powerful of the three.

At least, that’s what I came away with. The conversations between Kate and Anna about bringing friends over to the house, and their assessment of the various men they name, still has me confused, given that Anna now lives in Sicily and they haven’t seen each other for 20 years. But director Michael Kahn and the actors themselves (following Pinter’s guidance) purposely didn’t give us any answers. In a talkback session after the play, Middendorf said that the three cast members didn’t even try to analyze their characters’ words and behaviors, let alone motivations, so that the entire production would remain an enigma for the audience—kind of like memories.

Eric Minton
May 27, 2011

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