Domesticated sphinx: Kristin Scott Thomas (left) in "Old Times"
Harold Pinter's work currently occupies the Valhalla of playwrights alive recently enough to hover in our mind (in this case for overheated rants against Western military interventions), though not long gone enough for us to assess the durability of their best work.
Old Times at the Pinter (previously the Comedy) Theatre has the classy double act of Kristin Scott Thomas alternating with Lia Williams in the two main roles. The result is a serious attempt by director Ian Rickson to give a play about sex, control and social roles written in 1971 enough mojo to make us uneasy four decades later.
Pinterologists will need no reminding that Old Times is a three-handed puzzler in which the feline Kate, mouldering in a well-furnished farmhouse with her controlling spouse, the showy film director Deeley (Rufus Sewell), is visited by her old frenemy, Anna. The middle-class soirée is soon punctured with wounding lines like Anna telling Deeley, "You have a lovely casserole — I mean wife," and a messy unwinding of courtesies as Deeley and Anna battle for the waning attentions of Kate, parrying Cole Porter songs and contradictory anecdotes.
In Scott Thomas's version, Kate is a domesticated sphinx, dead to both her over-attentive old friend and vain husband long ago. Asked what she does when Deeley is away she retorts, "I continue," a put-down delivered with all the Weltschmerz that can be packed into four syllables. Williams's Anna shines as the rackety old flame with enough spark to rekindle destructive fires.
Pinter being the artful devil he was, Anna and Kate may be Freudian alter egos or (if you like it melodramatic) one may have killed the other. If there is a final truth, he wasn't letting on, so let Old Times contain its multitudes. His mordant view of life's attritions still arouses guilty recognition. "I was interested once in the arts," reflects sofa-bound Kate. "But I can't remember now which ones they were."