Harold Pinter: Tense Memory Play Recalls Old Times

Pinter's Old Times at Stanford's Pigott Theater

There is no proscenium curtain at the Pigott Theater on the Stanford University Campus. The 200 or so seats in this intimate theater look directly onto the stage. When I attended the Summer Theater 2011 production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times I was greeted by the immense facade of a 30-foot tall farmhouse. In front of the farmhouse on the dim stage was blocked out a sparse room containing only a dresser and two divans.

In the lowered stage lights, the room seemed to float above the stage on its 6 inch raised platform, to its right was another raised platform containing an armchair facing the audience and a side table. The coffee table is almost out of sight at the farthest edge of the left platform, away from the audience. Except for the dresser, this furniture is all called for in Pinter’s sparse, but effective, stage directions.

The play begins with a medley of music standards of the 30s and 40s: George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Anna, the surprise guest, appears at the left of the stage behind the farmhouse widow and slowly looks over the room. She moves to a second window, looks things over again, and then slowly walks into the room to position herself with her back to the audience looking out of the room.

Deeley, the host, silently enters the scene and walks across the stage to the armchair and sits. Kate, the hostess, enters and sits on the right divan, her divan, and says, reflectively, “Dark”. There is a long pause before Deeley responds. This is an upsetting and mysterious way to begin a play, but it is an attention grabber—the normally restless Stanford audience was quiet, and the play was off to a great start.

Pinter was born 10 October 1930, in Hackney, East London. His family was poor, with his father making his living as a ladies’ tailor. In 1939, at the start of the war in England, Pinter was taken from the city to the country. After the war, he was fined for refusing National Service as a conscientious objector. He remained an anti-war activist throughout his life.

Pinter studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and worked in repertory theatre in Ireland and England. In 1958 he wrote the following:

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”

In 2005, Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died on December 24, 2008.

Once the actors are situated on stage, the play Old Times begins in earnest. Kate and Deeley begin by discussing Kate’s old friend Anna, who is coming to visit them. Kate volunteers reluctantly that Anna was her best friend, actually, her only friend. Deeley says he’s never met Anna, and is surprised to hear that Kate and Anna shared the same bedroom 20 years ago. Kate remembers that Anna occasionally stole her underwear.

When Kate punched the word underwear, the audience chuckled, releasing the tension that had been building. Anna, who has been a silent presence, then turned from the window, took a seat on the second divan, her divan, and the audience seemed to anticipate her opening lines; the play was off to a good start.

Anna’s opening speech evokes memories of the time that she shared with Kate:

ANNA: Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember? My goodness, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden, what did we eat? To look back, half the night, to do things we loved, we were young then of course, but what stamina, and to work in the morning, and to a concert or the opera, or the ballet, that night, you haven’t forgotten? …
[That world,] does it still exist I wonder? Do you know? Can you tell me?

DEELEY: We rarely get to London.

(Kate stands, goes to a small table and pours coffee from a pot.)

KATE: Yes, I remember.

The contest between Anna and Deeley for Kate’s attention has begun. Round One goes to Anna, but the play has only just started.

Harold Pinter was a trained actor, and he played the roll of Deeley at The American Theater, USA in October 1985, and at the Henry Fonda Theater in November 1985. The other actors were Liv Ullmann as Anna and Nicola Pagett as Kate. ACT in San Francisco staged Old Times in 1998 with Graham Beckel as Deeley, Michelle Morain as Kate and Pamela Reed as Anna. (An extensive list of productions and reviews of performances is online at the Harold Pinter Organization web site.)

Jeffrey Bihr directed the Stanford production, with Rush Rehm, Artistic Director of Stanford Summer Theater, as Deeley and Courtney Walsh and Cristina Anselmo sharing the rolls of Kate and Anna (they alternate roles on successive nights). Performances continue throughout July at Pigott Theater. This is an excellent opportunity to watch these veteran actors tackle this difficult and challenging play. They give an honest rendering of Pinter’s work as he wrote it—leaving the interpretation of the ambiguities inherent in the Pinter play to the theatergoer.


If you go to a Sunday matinee performance you can stay for a discussion with the actors. Yes!

Day 60: Old Times, Harold Pinter (1971).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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