The Past Catches Up With Them

Revivals of Harold Pinter and Simon Stephens explore memory and the consequences of actions long ago

Theatre
Domesticated sphinx: Kristin Scott Thomas (left) in "Old Times"

Harold Pinter’s work currently occupies the Valhalla of playwrights alive recently enough to hover in our mind (in this case for overheated rants against Western military interventions), though not long gone enough for us to assess the durability of their best work.

Old Times at the Pinter (previously the Comedy) Theatre has the classy double act of Kristin Scott Thomas alternating with Lia Williams in the two main roles. The result is a serious attempt by director Ian Rickson to give a play about sex, control and social roles written in 1971 enough mojo to make us uneasy four decades later.

Pinterologists will need no reminding that Old Times is a three-handed puzzler in which the feline Kate, mouldering in a well-furnished farmhouse with her controlling spouse, the showy film director Deeley (Rufus Sewell), is visited by her old frenemy, Anna. The middle-class soirée is soon punctured with wounding lines like Anna telling Deeley, “You have a lovely casserole — I mean wife,” and a messy unwinding of courtesies as Deeley and Anna battle for the waning attentions of Kate, parrying Cole Porter songs and contradictory anecdotes.

In Scott Thomas’s version, Kate is a domesticated sphinx, dead to both her over-attentive old friend and vain husband long ago. Asked what she does when Deeley is away she retorts, “I continue,” a put-down delivered with all the Weltschmerz that can be packed into four syllables. Williams’s Anna shines as the rackety old flame with enough spark to rekindle destructive fires.

Pinter being the artful devil he was, Anna and Kate may be Freudian alter egos or (if you like it melodramatic) one may have killed the other. If there is a final truth, he wasn’t letting on, so let Old Times contain its multitudes. His mordant view of life’s attritions still arouses guilty recognition. “I was interested once in the arts,” reflects sofa-bound Kate. “But I can’t remember now which ones they were.” 

The play is also a hymn to the late 1950s with the fug of late-night jazz clubs and liberation of louche London life for the postwar generation: ghosts that cling to Rickson’s moody production.

Memory and the constraints past actions  confer also hang like a tattered shroud over Simon Stephens’s Port, written in 2001 and now in a new incarnation at the National Theatre, albeit with Marianne Elliott retaining the director’s role. 

Stephens is routinely described as “prolific”. A more pertinent question for a man who churns out plays at record speed as well as successful adaptations like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is what makes this Stakhanovite dramatist’s work  memorable. Port, first performed in 2001 in Manchester, is a good test. In it, we follow the euphonically-named Racheal Keats (a spirited Kate O’Flynn) from the age of 11 to 24, as she struggles to shake off the shackles of a deprived upbringing by a mother who abandons her and brother Billy (Mike Noble), an epically jumpy ADHT youth. Recall The Jam’s lines, “I could go on for hours/and I probably will/But I’d sooner put some joy back into this town called Malice,” and you have Stephens’s evocation of life on the edge of tolerability amid the high-rises and car parks.

No one bothers with the Racheals and Billies, whoever is in power. Billy drifts into young offending and prison, with only his stroppy sister believing in his redemption. Although resolutely left-wing, Stephens wisely resists having his characters shout about the Thatcher years or persistence of the opportunity gap under Labour. Plotlines from perverts in the park, to smash and grab raids on Boots and the casual awfulness of bad parenting, mean that the evening contributes little to a “Visit Stockport” campaign. Northern towns must shudder when one of their own puts them on the stage and the running time could be cut by a good third if the profanities were rationed. 

But there is much humanity and the odd belly laugh in Stephens’s bleak vision. Billie reflects that Stockport is no place to bring up a dog, while the supermarket manager reeling from the umpteenth shoplifting spree perorates that the north-west is “getting like bloody Beirut”. On this showing, the judgment is somewhat unkind to Lebanon. 

Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Koepenick is one of those texts which many of us who learnt German in the late-20th century associate with the pen-chewing chore of set texts. Zuckmayer’s 1931 play is a thoroughly Swiss take on the Prussia of a quarter-century before, brimful of the evils of militarism and foolishness of the Kaiserreich  paving the way to the First World War.  

Making it more than a didactic schools matinée is always a challenge and the National’s  production at the Lyttelton with Adrian Noble directing throws revolving stage, Cubist set and many other enlivening devices at the enterprise without taking us a goose-step nearer to the era it is trying to capture.

Antony Sher as Voigt is an engaging vagrant, exposing the cruel idiocies of an authoritarian system. Anthony O’Donnell  proves an adept foil as the bog-standard mayor trying to fit into the borrowed robes of the Prussian military. Sher’s finest moment is the move from wheedling petitioner to blustering commander: he shifts verbal gear, accent and class in a single Captain Mainwaring harrumph.

Alas, the production can’t cope with the play’s structural weakness: the exposition of the first half drags on for aeons before Voigt becomes entertainingly naughty by buying a fancy-dress uniform and dragooning a brigade to commandeer the town hall to prise his precious papers from officialdom.  

Though we feel the desperation and anger, we don’t get the slightest idea of why Prussian militarism is so seductive and powerful as to enthrall the population and Ron Hutchinson’s breezy adaptation struggles with some of the more plodding comedy. Sending up the period of pointed headgear and marching bands is easy, making sense of it a lot harder. This Captain of Koepenick is a romp, but not a revelation.