The memory of Old Times for newly named theatre

Old Times – Harold Pinter Theatre, until Saturday 06 April [Tickets]

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.

The unmistakable poise of Kristin Scott Thomas

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.

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Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011)

The tragic death of Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011) earlier this month has sadly robbed the theatrical world of one of the more impressive résumé’s of modern playwrights. Harold Pinter may have been awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to literature – an award which contained an inherent recognition of the political aspect of his later writing – but Havel can claim to go one step further; he was a major presence in world politics and also a key figure in the transition from authoritarian communist rule to democracy in the ex-Soviet states. Indeed the gulf between the two can be seen in the fact that it was Pinter who played ‘Vanek’, Havel’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego, in a BBC radio play in 1977.

Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 Havel was elected, by the Federal Assembly, as the ninth, and as it turned out final, President of Czechoslovakia. He was also responsible for introducing democracy to the country following 40 years of Communist rule, and, despite opposing it, oversaw the movement that led to the eventual split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In a world where most politicians appear to be motivated primarily by money and power, Havel can be held up as a shining example of a true public intellectual. Whereas many playwrights can write about politics, Havel lived through his beliefs and will remain in the history books as a powerful reminder that the literary world can engage with the political on an equal footing.

 

The fact that there is a Havel legacy in the U.K, given the generally dire prominence of any modern playwrights who are not Anglo-American is almost entirely down to the marvellous Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It has become a bastion of Havel’s work, and has been responsible for staging 12 major productions, including the first English translations of many of his plays. In 1977, on the eve of premiering Havel’s work in England, Charter ’77 exploded and the Orange Tree, a tiny theatre above a pub in the heart of liberal London suburbia found itself at the centre of Czech politics. From this moment forward the Orange Tree, an increasingly influential fringe venue, forged a sustained and meaningful relationship with Havel that continued through to his death.

 

For more on the relationship between the Orange Tree and Vaclav Havel click here.