There is nothing wrong with leaving a theatre perplexed. Shakespeare, Ibsen or Chekov may have been storytellers of the highest order, their plays a painstaking work of characters and plots woven together until the strands hang like a medieval tapestry; solid but exquisite. However the 20th century saw the emergence of new writers and new forms; those who use who would use character and language to explore mood and atmosphere. The results of these investigations are equally exquisite but the strands are of gossamer silk and as such one wrong move can destroy their beautiful fragility.
Old Times, written by Pinter in 1971, sits in the middle of his plays that explore ambiguous themes of memory and remembering and that sees characters interrogate their past lives from a present that often appears to exist in a meta-physical hinterland. For his next play, No Mans Land, Pinter would go back to the same ideas again and turn them into the great play of this period of his career.
There is nothing particularly wrong about Old Times but if it is a masterpiece, it is one that is in a minor-key. You get the sense of a playwright stretching out, prodding at ideas that require deeper exploration and as a result you get semi-formed fragments that burst fitfully into life as Pinter’s ability to generate unease through the rhythm of language comes to the surface. However there also exist oddities that seem to jar and where his trademark shifts in tone and interruption appear enforced.
The meaning of the play may be ambiguous but it seems, in Ian Rickson’s decision to alternate the roles of Anna/Kate’s between Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams, that he is following in the interpretation that suggests Anna may be a figment of Kate’s imagination – or even a psychological reference point to an older part of the life that she felt it necessary to ‘kill’ off when marrying Deeley.