Role-swapping: just a gimmick or an extra dimension to the drama?

Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams are alternating parts in Pinter's Old Times revival. It's a tradition that has led to both rows and awards

Once a week, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams toss a coin to decide who will play which role on stage in the West End that night. The two actresses are starring in Harold Pinter's play Old Times, a three-hander in which a married couple, Kate and Deeley (played by Rufus Sewell), are visited by Kate's old best friend, Anna.

Or are they? As always in Pinter, all is not quite as it seems. This is no cosy dinner-party reunion. The first sign that things are a little off is when Anna tells Deeley, "You have a wonderful casserole… I mean, wife." Later Kate tells Anna "I remember you dead." The play, which had its premiere in 1971 with Vivien Merchant, Dorothy Tutin and Colin Blakely, is one of Pinter's most mysterious, a dream-like 80-minute wonder. Is it a love triangle? Or the memory of a love triangle? Is Anna a figment of the role-playing couple's imagination? Or are Anna and Kate the same woman, two halves of the same whole?

It was with this last question in mind that Scott Thomas came up with the idea of swapping the roles of Anna and Kate. It was 2011 and she was starring in Ian Rickson's production of Betrayal, Pinter's 1978 three-hander about a woman who has an affair. "She said, 'Why don't we swap the men's parts around?'" says Rickson. "But it was too late by then so we decided to do Old Times properly and have her play both parts."

The two actresses will switch between the inscrutable Kate and the more talkative Anna every few nights. Rickson invited a psychologist into rehearsals to explore the idea that the two women represent one split personality. "You could read it that in order to become a wife Kate has lopped off the extrovert part of herself, or Anna. And so to explore their marriage the couple invite back this lopped-off self, explore her and grieve for her. I like that," he says.

Both parts are a gift for the 52-year-old actress and have been played by a series of venerable pairings down the ages, from Harriet Walter and Julie Christie in 1995, to the last West End production in 2004 which starred Helen McCrory and Gina McKee. Scott Thomas and Williams have learned both parts but the real challenge will be to shift between them. Sewell, meanwhile, will have to remember which actress is playing his wife each night. "I underestimated, frankly, how demanding and challenging it is for everybody to carry both productions," says Rickson. "For me it's like directing two at the same time. And in terms of the malleability the actors need… it is the Acting Olympics."

Old Times is not the first production to feature role-swapping. Danny Boyle mixed man and monster in Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller changing between lead roles at the National Theatre two years ago. Before that Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternated as brothers – one a successful screenwriter, the other a talentless drifter – in Sam Shepard's True West at the Donmar in 1994. And long before that, in 1935, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier switched places as Romeo and Mercutio six weeks into a run of Romeo and Juliet.

For the actors, the rewards for such a virtuoso display can be handsome – if it comes off. Cumberbatch and Miller were joint winners of an Olivier and an Evening Standard Theatre award last year. "In rehearsals you're listening to your lines, you're watching the decisions another very good actor is making, and you're thinking about your own choices," said Cumberbatch of the process. "It's a very harmonious way to work."

That's the best-case scenario, but the risks are high. And comparisons are inevitable. In his book Acting Shakespeare, Gielgud recalls how he disapproved of the false nose Olivier wore to play Romeo and thought he was inclined to be "too athletic" in his bedroom scene with Juliet. For his part, in On Acting, Olivier recalls how the two fell out over how best to speak Romeo's verse. "I think I was right, and I know that John will go on thinking that he was. Whatever the results, whichever side people come down on, we must have been fascinating to watch."

And there's the rub. Is role-swapping just a gimmick, an invigorating gamble for the cast, or does it add an extra dimension to the drama for those watching? In the case of Pinter, interchanging two actresses should nudge audiences to imagine one woman in the other's place, just as Deeley does on stage.

It is a commercially canny move, too. Frankenstein sold out in double-quick time because audiences were keen to see both versions. Even the critics went in twice, on consecutive evenings. For Old Times, a performance schedule is posted online, apart from the weekly "coin toss nights" that will be decided on the day. At the first preview, Scott Thomas played Kate and Williams Anna but the casting for press night – which one might expect to be closest to the director's vision – is the reverse. "I don't have a preferred version," says Rickson. "That would be like choosing which of your two children you love more."

'Old Times', Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1 (0844 871 7622; www.oldtimestheplay.com) to 6 April

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture