It's like trying to grapple with ghosts. Harold Pinter's Old Times, written in 1970, is an enthralling and disturbingly elusive play. The domestic situation seems mundane at first, with middle-class Deeley asking his wife, Kate, some questions about their imminent dinner guest. However, their chat is unsettling - verging on the poetic - as she tells him about Anna, her flatmate of 20-odd years ago. After dinner, we watch this reunion turning into a threatening love triangle, with Anna and Deeley battling over Kate. Pinter plays games with multiplying storylines here, slipping between the present, unreliable memories and sexual fantasies until you lose your grip on reality. The whole thing might, in fact, be playing inside Deeley's disturbed mind. Or the house may be haunted by unhappy spirits.
Roger Michell's revival (designed by William Dudley and lit by Rick Fisher) brilliantly captures the play's paradoxical atmosphere of entrapment and evanescence. We watch everything through gauze nets and, upstage, tall windows look out over bleak, monochrome mud flats. They also throw back eerie reflections of the protagonists.
Michell's cast are riveting. Perhaps Jeremy Northam is not absolutely convincing as Deeley, his moments of comic pomposity and furious jealousy feeling slightly forced. However, the alternating current of loathing and attraction between him and Helen McCrory's Anna is electric. In her superb performance, tarty elegance is shot through with girlish charisma, while Gina McKee's Kate is alarmingly magnetic, like some serene goddess with the destructive power of Charybdis. Outstanding.
Unfortunately, this makes The Old Masters seem all the more disappointing. Simon Gray's new play, directed by Pinter, is their ninth collaboration but, alas, not their best work. The scenario is intriguing enough, zooming in on a meeting in 1937 between the art historian, Bernard Berenson, and Joseph Duveen, the art dealer whose million-dollar customers included Andrew Mellon. The expert authority and the tradesman were closely associated from 1912 onwards, when Berenson agreed to appraise works in which Duveen had a market interest.
However, when we join Edward Fox's Berenson at his elegant Italian retreat, Villa I Tatti, the old pals have been having a long-distance row over money. Then Peter Bowles's Duveen arrives, late one night, manifestly wanting to patch up their differences. Fox's dapper Berenson surrenders, slightly sniffily, to Duveen's bear hug after the latter offers a more lucrative partnership. But, of course, there are strings attached. Duveen can make a mint if Berenson will qualify his published opinion about who painted the The Adoration of the Shepherds. Mellon wants a Giorgione, not a Titian.
This play is a study of entangled private and professional relationships, of upheld and undermined values, of contracts and betrayals of trust. Those issues extend to Berenson's ménage à trois, as he cohabits with his wife, Mary (Barbara Jefford), and his mistress/PA, Nicky (Sally Dexter). One might see The Old Masters as Gray's variation on The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's portrait of the immoral, exploitative modern art world. It also invites comparison with Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, with its two colleagues in a morally dubious rendezvous, framed by the bigger picture of the Second World War. However, questions of serious political embroilments are not so fully integrated here. In fact, this is an oddly saggy, old-fashioned play. It is often merely easy-viewing. One feels Gray's depictions of ageing friends, potentially terminal illnesses and long-suffering women may be full of autobiographical tenderness, but they slip towards sentimentality.
Bowles is on good form, hovering between fraudulence and genuine fondness. However, though Fox can be amusingly wry, his performance boils down to a slightly tiresome collection of mannerisms - growling and blinking. His plummy English accent also varnishes over the fact that Berenson was, in fact, a Harvard-educated Lithuanian. One wonders if this play would have reached the West End if such famous names were not attached.
The same goes for We Happy Few, only this is really dire. Imogen Stubbs, having an excruciating stab at writing instead of acting, nearly brings you to your knees with her interminable, ill-constructed saga about an all-ladies troupe who go round bucking up the Brits with performances of Shakespeare during the Second World War. Thumping great chunks of Macbeth and Henry V are interspersed with jolly japes, backstage strops, budding romances, and predictable personal tragedies. It's enough to put you off luvvies for life. Moreover, Stubbs can't resist politically correct preaching, then doesn't have the courage to stick to her guns. With monotonous regularity, she laughs off each moral lecture with a jokey disclaimer.
Juliet Stevenson and her crew - including Caroline Blakiston and the ever-perky Marcia Warren - have presumably been taken in by this tosh or else need the work. Trevor Nunn, for better or worse, directs. Ours not to reason why.
Finally, in John Dove's mostly dull, under-directed staging of Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe, the settings are sometimes positively perverse: tapestries showing leafy garlands for the city scenes, then grim grey walls for Mariana's rural retreat. The play's intense ethical arguments hardly come into focus. Liam Brennan's Angelo seems, at most, mildly worried about his fall and transmogrification from puritanical magistrate into lustful blackmailer. Mark Rylance plays the disguised Duke of Vienna as a ludicrously feeble fellow, which is droll but shallow and a familiar trick of his. Hilary Tones, who plays Mariana with ardour, is a name to watch and one senses Sophie Thompson's dowdy, bustling Isabella could be sharply engaging if Dove didn't require her to shrug off her ill-treatment and dance a grinning jig with the Duke at the end. Almost radical, it feels so wrong.
'Old Times': Donmar, London WC2 (0870 060 6624), to 4 September; 'The Old Masters': Comedy, London SW1 (0870 060 6637), to 28 August; 'We Happy Few': Gielgud, London W1 (0870 890 1105), to 13 November; 'Measure for Measure': Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919), to 24 SeptemberReuse content