Old Times, Donmar Warehouse, London

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The Independent Culture

It's a fact seldom remarked on that the two women are never seen alone together in Harold Pinter's 1971 three-hander Old Times. Why? Is it because an all-female conversation would blow the whole brilliant, artificial construction to bits? Would any private talk between them give the lie to the exaggeration in the play's fundamental idea: that the past can be reinvented at will according to the needs of the present moment and that "memories" are merely weapons in a deadly battle over current contested territory?

It's a fact seldom remarked on that the two women are never seen alone together in Harold Pinter's 1971 three-hander Old Times. Why? Is it because an all-female conversation would blow the whole brilliant, artificial construction to bits? Would any private talk between them give the lie to the exaggeration in the play's fundamental idea: that the past can be reinvented at will according to the needs of the present moment and that "memories" are merely weapons in a deadly battle over current contested territory?

The female characters interact with each other entirely under the eyes of Deeley, a film-maker who is forced into a duel over possession of his wife, Kate, when her old friend Anna, with whom she once shared a flat in London, visits them at their farmhouse near the sea. If the liberating twist is that Kate eventually sees off both claimants, the play uses the women as agents in a disturbing study of male insecurity, and of the savage operations of retrospective jealousy.

In Roger Michell's sleek, assured revival at the Donmar, the drama unfolds like an elegantly choreographed bad dream. The action is presented at a remove behind walls of gauze, and this, along with the mirrored flooring and the vivid monochrome view of the coast at low tide through the window at the back, gives the proceedings a hallucinatory and exemplary feel, though the contemporary costumes and fittings create a mismatch between the characters, who are in their early forties, and their memories of Bohemian London that are of early Fifties vintage.

I had trouble, too, with the casting of Gina McKee as Kate. Her long, beautiful face has the requisite watchfulness, but would a woman who looks so independent-minded ever have lapsed into such passivity that it takes an intruder to rouse her from her dreadful marriage?

The other two roles receive spot-on performances. As the increasingly panicky Deeley, Jeremy Northam reveals a childish compulsion to be competitive with Anna on all fronts. By the end, he's a sobbing husk of himself. Anna is played with a coolly seductive sexual sophistication by the excellent Helen McCrory, who is brilliant at conveying both the amused, challenging nature of the character's eroticism and her quietly thunderstruck amazement when Kate changes the rules of the game.

I always find myself in two minds about Old Times. There's no denying that it has some of the force of poetry in the structural subtlety with which Pinter makes phrases and images unsettlingly recur. But I also feel that the play pushes its insights to such a mannered extreme that you can't believe the half of it.

To 4 September (020-7240 4882)

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