The Theatreguide.London Review
Harold Pinter Theatre Winter-Spring 2013
One of Harold Pinter's most enigmatic and frustrating dramas gets a sparkling and surprisingly almost-clear re-invention at the hands of director Ian Rickson and a sterling cast.
Married couple Kate and Deeley are visited by Kate's old friend Anna, leading believably to an evening of reminiscences. But the various memories of the past begin not only to contradict each other but to blur together, one person laying claim to an episode originally remembered by another. Some sort of competition seems to be going on, but between whom and for what prize?
Previous productions and academic interpretations have seen the play as a demonstration of the unknowability of the past when all we have to go on is memory, or the unreliability of memory itself.
Some have seen Kate and Anna colluding to defeat and negate Deeley, while others have wondered if Anna really exists at all or is just a symbol of some battle between husband and wife.
Director Rickson and his actors – Kristin Scott Thomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams – have taken another tack, at least in the performance I saw (more on that disclaimer later).
It is clear here that Deeley and Anna are fighting for ownership of Kate, or perhaps ownership of their memories of her and their definition of who she is, and that after putting up with this for most of the play Anna turns the tables on them and asserts her ownership of herself.
That reading may sacrifice some of Pinter's metaphysical speculations on the nature of reality and memory, but it leaves a taut psychosexual drama.
For whatever reasons – and some mysteries and ambiguities remain – it is of immense importance to both Deeley and Kate to define and therefore own Anna, and they use whatever weapons they have – forceful anger on his part, teasing sexuality on hers, evocative tale-spinning and wooing of Anna by both – to score points against each other.
But back to my disclaimer. Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams are, as an acting exercise, alternating in the roles of Kate and Anna, and I'm reporting on the dynamic that exists when Scott Thomas is a sexy and seductive Anna and Williams makes Kate boyish, almost determinedly unsexual, and alternately bored, amused and angered by the others' sparring over her.
Meanwhile Rufus Sewell takes Deeley on a journey from laid-back confidence through the discovery that he's playing against a serious opponent for very high stakes, to the despairing realisation that both he and Anna have been outplayed.
And who knows? Maybe when the actresses switch roles the dynamics are different. You'll have to come back another night to see.
In any case, even long-time Pinter admirers like myself have tended to avoid this particular play as just too enigmatic to be satisfying, and it is a real delight to encounter a production that not only makes it all make sense (more or less) but reveals it to be an exciting psychological drama.
And while I went in wondering if I could ever recommend this play to a Pinter neophyte, I can now think of no better introduction to the playwright.