The experience of seeing Julie Christie onstage does not attain the near-religious dimensions alluded to in some other critical quarters for those of us who grew up during her campaigning years rather than her golden screen era. If we needed reminding, however, Theatr Clwyd has thoughtfully programmed a cinema season of Christie's greatest achievements in parallel with her impressive performance in Lindy Davies' production of Harold Pinter's 1971 play Old Times.
Julian McGowan's set – an enormous would-be granite back wall behind a large, unfussy lounge area – suggests in the Emlyn Williams Theatre's large studio space the domestic expanse of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu shrunken to the dimensions of the prosperous chattering classes. And, as in the Xanadu scenes of Welles's film, Pinter's three characters spend their time failing ever to communicate meaningfully.
Leigh Lawson as Deeley (oddly reminiscent, here, of Richard Johnson) and Carol Drinkwater as Anna impart an appropriate air of slightly stilted artificiality to the delivery of their lines, as if the characters too are performing rather than interacting. Their individual threads of recollection, and that of Kate (Christie), gradually twine together, but grow no closer to constituting a common past. Anna may or may not be a past lover of Kate's, or the personification of an aspect of her personality, or a figment of the dead past, or all three: her status, like the old times themselves, is essentially elusive.
Kate's otherworldliness is paradoxically rendered by Christie in a more naturalistic performance than those of her fellows; when she breaks out of her frequent silences she is recognisably a person rather than a persona. What seems at first like a flaw in Christie's performance – an inability to subordinate herself to the demands of Pinterishness – slowly acquires strength until, in her closing remembrance, it meshes with Kate's nature as the only one of the three who genuinely inhabits both the past and the present, as Deeley and Kate lapse into tearful silence.
The passage of time since the play's composition has also fortified its resonance. When it was written, its characters were recalling the joys of early 1950s London immediately post-austerity; however, it is impossible to read this production except as centring on the recollection by three fortysomethings of the glorious '60s in what is now a (for them) more comfortable but far hollower world. In this respect, of course, Christie's presence as a late-'60s icon does no harm whatever to the atmosphere of misremembrance of things past.
Old Times constitutes an object example of outgoing artistic director Helena Kaut-Howson's policy of marrying audience appeal to programming which gently pushes the envelope of mainstream theatre-going. On its own terms, it achieves a power undeniable even by those for whom Pinter may not be their particular tea party.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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