Director Douglas Hodge spoke about Old Times with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows (please note there are plot spoilers):
Ted Sod: Can you tell us about your relationship with Harold Pinter?
Douglas Hodge: We met acting together. They had done No Man’s Land in England with Lord John Gielgud and Lord Ralph Richardson and nobody dared play it after those two. And Antonia, Harold’s wife, widow now, who is a quite brilliant woman, said to Harold, “Why don’t you play one of the parts and it’ll break that mold and people will come.” So I was cast in the play. I was absolutely terrified of him and he was of course famously volatile and violent and irascible--all of which proved to be true. I think in the first week he was berating stage management when one light had come on two seconds late and it happened three or four times and I said, “Oh, you don’t need to speak like that to stage management,” and he immediately stood up and said, “Don’t tell me what I need!” and started to take off his jacket and I realized he was about to attack me.
From there we became firm friends really. He hadn’t written a play for eighteen years and he wrote Moonlight during our production. One evening in the dressing room he said, “I’ve just started on this little play again.” That became Moonlight. He handed me that play during the run of No Man’s Land and I went on to direct that at the Almeida and then on the West End. I worked with him for ten years either directing his work or acting in Betrayal, The Lover, The Collection, The Caretaker and in the film of The Trial, almost to the detriment of my career really. I should have probably been doing film and TV, but it was just irresistible. He became almost a father figure to me, he had such certainty and, of course, such genius, brilliance and clarity. He was very much a theatre man and I just admired the way he conducted himself. I admired the etiquette of his rehearsals and I miss him enormously. So it’s lovely to be back in his presence doing this play.
TS: Do you feel you learned something specific from him as an artist?
DH: He was a theatre animal. He started off as an actor himself, his stage name was David Baron. He went on endless tours and played a lot of Shakespeare, so he had an inherited tradition. I often feel, and you can see it in this evening’s performance, that there is a link between him and Noel Coward. Coward wrote these plays of manners. People spoke in epigrams, but underneath it was this murky current of feeling going on all the time. Pinter inherited rules from Wilde and Coward and embraced them. He found his own form in his experimental way of writing plays. If you work in the theatre, you’re part of that tradition and sometimes you feel yourself going back through the ages. I feel I am part of that family of artists, I suppose.
TS: His early plays are often called “Comedies of Menace” and the plays from 1968 on are referred to as “Memory Plays”. Do you think that this is a memory play, since it was written in 1971.
DH: I’ve never heard that before. I’ve not really read much of the Pinter scholarly criticism. I would say this is THE memory play that he wrote. It’s about memory and it’s about jealousy of your lover’s past. It is also about selective memory, more than any of the other plays. Pinter was obsessed with memory as a subject. He spent a year writing the most exquisite screenplay of Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which is all about selective memory and the tiny moments that stay with you through your life -- smells and scents that bring back places, people. He spent what he called a wonderful year adapting that novel as a screenplay. It was never made; it was too unwieldy and experimental to ever be funded as a film, but it’s published as a text.
The subject of memory was extremely important to him. He was deeply upset that things that he felt strongly about when he was eighteen, he could no longer remember. He felt more and more that the past is actually the present, that there is no past—that the past is now. I think he thought that the moment you’re in embodies everything that you’ve done in your past -- your entire past is happening in the present and informs what you do. Memory was a very philosophical subject for him.
In addition to being about memory, I think Old Times is very sexy, a bit like Betrayal is. Pinter told me he was sick and tired of walls and windows and doors. He had already written The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, and he just wanted his imagination to fly and be more experimental. He wrote Landscape, which I think is about three pages long. He wrote Silence, which is about a page long, as a test to see if he was brave enough to break into a new way of writing. Which, let’s face it, if you’re very, very successful, and he was, is quite brave really. Old Times was one the first of the plays where he started to say things in a more poetic way.
TS: When our artistic director, Todd Haimes, approached you to direct a project for us, did you immediately think of Old Times?
DH: When I first worked at Roundabout, I was going to direct and act in Cyrano de Bergerac; then I realized that was an act of megalomania. So I opted to act. After Cyrano, I said, “I’d love to come and direct something here,” and Todd had a particular love for Old Times. They had a production of it at Roundabout 30 years ago. It was a very rocky time for Roundabout financially and a friend walked in and said to Todd, “I just got Anthony Hopkins to agree to do this play, can we do it?” They put Old Times on and it had a very good run. So Todd has a particular love for the play. It hasn’t been seen on Broadway since 1971. In England, there was a production in 2012, I think. There was another production three years before that; it’s constantly being done. But for some reason it hasn’t been done here for a long, long time. So it seemed perfect and it’s containable. I mean it feels like a big, big evening even though it’s only an hour and five minutes.
Roundabout Theatre Company's production of OLD TIMES.
TS: Walk us through your process: you decided to direct Old Times; I’m sure you read the script countless times, did you start thinking of actors at that point?
DH: I thought Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best would be fantastic and I said that to Todd Haimes and Jim Carnahan and they agreed and they phoned them up and about a month later they’d all said yes. Eve did The Homecoming here and I know she met Pinter for lunch and he said, “There’s one play of mine you must do called Old Times, you must play Anna.” So when they phoned Eve and said, “Will you do it,” I think she thought she had to. It’s very rare that you think of people for specific roles and ask them and then they all come on board.
TS: Long before you got into the rehearsal room with these incredible actors, you had to work with the design team. You had to come up with a mise en scene for the play. Pinter says in the text the setting is a converted farmhouse and this design definitely evokes something different for me. It underscores the elliptical, circular sense of the play. Will you talk us through your choices for the design?
DH: It’s no hardship to start designing a play before you start rehearsals because what you’re making is a launch pad. A launch pad for ideas -- a place where the imagination might be able to take flight. I think because I worked with Harold so closely and for so long, I felt rather free to be able to say, “Okay, when he says a converted farmhouse, as long as we’re in a room then we can go a little further and be a bit freer. I felt liberated to be able to do that. Christine Jones is the set designer on this and Japhy Weidman is lighting designer. My starting premise, I suppose, was that I wanted a place that could possibly be at the end of the world, could be at the top of a mountain, maybe even in purgatory or in limbo. Somewhere that is stuck forever. Christine suggested what if it was just some endlessly revolving place. We then talked about having the set revolve imperceptibly, which it has. I don’t know if any of you have seen it tonight but the set has moved all the way around during the play. From the start of the play it’s moving around slowly. And then I said, “Oh I’d like to go further, because of Harold’s feelings about walls and doors, I’d quite like to get all walls and doors made of ice and they should sit in an ice house and it should slowly melt throughout the evening.” That’s when the budgetary people came in and said, “No, that sounds brilliant, but we can’t really have the walls melting each night.” So Christine, who is an architectural designer, came back with this time-lapse photograph of the cyc, which seemed like it was the northern lights, and one window or door of ice stuck here and some sofas and beds on this circular floor. I think the set is more beautiful from upstairs because you see that the floor is mirrored in the cyc.
Christine Jones' set model for OLD TIMES.
TS: I can only imagine how rigorous it must have been to unpack this play and explore it with actors. It has to be one of the most difficult plays for everyone to get on the same page about because of the conflicting memories.
DH: Well, the first thing is that no idea is wrong. If you go and see a dance piece, like Pina Bausch, with repetitive movements or tableaus, what you get from it is right, it’s not wrong. And the same with the play, there are all sorts of endless interpretations. There are things that are suggested by the text that come and go. But to be able to act it, you have to make choices instead of just being weirdly ambiguous onstage. I know from playing Pinter you have to say, “This is what I think, this is what I believe in this moment. I have great desire for this person or I want to murder this person or whatever.” You make a specific choice and that’s what you play wholeheartedly. So we just sat around the table, we read say five pages, and then we rigorously asked every single question we could about it. Quite often we’d reenact it, whatever memories were within it. We would leap up and try and act the memories out. Certain memories started to track and certain memories were subjective. Each actor began to select their own course through the text and decided what they felt their trajectory is. I also listened to the music in the piece -- this is a fantastically musical piece -- and you can hear immediately if the music falls apart or if it’s untrue. If you look at the first three minutes of the play, there’s two people indisputably describing a woman who Harold says is onstage dimly lit, so we don’t know if she’s a ghost, but she’s certainly manifested by their memory of her. Then she turns and speaks for two pages about memories. Pinter’s literally writing a piece of music which starts with these two instruments and then this third voice comes in, always nostalgically, looking at the past, and that develops and moves and changes. Part of my job is to orchestrate that and follow that music very, very carefully.
TS: I’m so taken with the fact that every time I watch the play, I see something new. But one of the constants for me is this battle for the possession of Kate. Are Deeley and Anna trying to possess her?
DH: That’s exactly right. In all Pinter there is endless competition, intimidation and bullying. So I would say, “Okay, let’s see who can win Kate,” and they’d play at it as hard as they could to get her attention. We’d do it and say, “Let’s see whose memory is the absolute verdict of the true moment,” and they would fight for their ground. That gives the play tension. Whatever the erotic implications of Kate and Anna being together are, it’s a struggle. The friendship of the two women is something Deeley simply can’t know and can’t compete with. He just has to accept it, but there is jealousy among all three. Harold started the play because he was obsessed with jealousy for his lover’s past, which I’m sure everybody has felt to some degree. The idea of meeting someone and falling passionately in love with them and knowing that they’ve also had great moments of passion with someone else, that they’ve been as intimate with someone else, that they’ve been as happy with someone else, that they’ve actually been in the same bed with someone else – those thoughts can become obsessive.
TS: You think Pinter was inspired by his personal life, writing this?
DH: Completely, yes.
TS: Having done so much research on Pinter, it became clear to me that the marriage to Vivien Merchant, who played Anna in the original production, was very turbulent. During the marriage Pinter was having a clandestine affair with Joan Bakewell, which became very public after he died, evidently.
DH: That’s right.
TS: I don’t want to make this prurient in any way, but what really made my head spin is just recently I was reading that simultaneous to the affair with Bakewell, Pinter was having an affair with an American socialite named Barbara Stanton.
DH: Those Americans.
TS: Those Americans. But this is the part that I really loved, Doug -- he met her because her husband produced The Homecoming here.
DH: Yes, yes…
TS: What struck me after I read all that was the idea that perhaps these two women he was having affairs with inspired the possession aspect of this play.
DH: He puts the biggest threat in the room, which makes for good drama. All that you said is true. I don’t know whether it’s for any of us to decide if it’s right or wrong. The plot of Betrayal is a good example of what you’re talking about. Essentially Harold had a seven-year affair with Joan Bakewell, who was an incredibly sexy TV presenter, and Bakewell’s husband was Pinter’s greatest champion at the BBC, which commissioned most of his early plays. Joan and Harold set up a flat and had this long affair and she finally told her husband and Harold felt that Joan had betrayed him. During that time, Joan had a child with her husband and Pinter felt that too was a total act of betrayal. The husband was never strong enough to confront Pinter about the affair. And for those of you who know the play Betrayal, it’s literally, at times, a verbatim version of what happened. Joan said she was much wittier in real life. There’s a scene in the play, where the character based on her enters -- she’s been to Rome and brings back a tablecloth to their love nest. Joan said, “In real life, I brought an egg timer.”
TS: The opening images of your production seem like photographs of the ending images, am I right about that?
DH: Yes, yes.
TS: And is that because you sense that the whole piece is going to be played over and over?
DH: As I said, most of the research that I’ve done for the play is to read about memory and selective memory. How we can aimlessly go back to the same memories, trying to repeat those memories that won’t leave us alone. Perhaps twenty years ago something happened that you are constantly repeating, trying to mend or improve – you are trying to understand the memory or get closure with it. The characters in this play are surrounded by memories, there is a repetitive thing going on and they’re all involved in it. What I felt about those photographs is that I wanted it to be uncompromising, in Harold’s way. I know people don’t like having light shined in their faces and that’s part of the brutality of it. It says these people are going to be nasty to each other, they’re going to hurt each other and they’re going to go at each other and they’re not going to be able to resolve it, however polite they may seem. What I would really like to do is to finish the play and then start the play again and just slowly lower the curtain. I spoke to Antonia Frasier just the other day and said, “I’m thinking about doing this: the actors will create the last photograph, and speak the opening lines and then the stage will start to revolve and the curtain would come in and the audience will know we’re leaving these poor bastards forever in debt.” Antonia said, “I promised Harold no words would be added,” and I said, “Well, we wouldn’t be adding words, we’d be starting again,” and she said, “I know, but even if it’s repeated words that are in the play, it’s the promise I made him.”
TS: Given that all three actors seem to have a very distinct understanding of what happened in the past to their characters, did you ever feel one actor was more right than the others?
DH: Some of the actors arrived with views that I thought were wrong and we unraveled them and played them out and tested them. We had this process where if someone brought an interpretation, we’d run the play and see if it held water.
TS: Will you tell us a bit about watching the film Odd Man Out? As I understand it, the cast and you watched it to see if there were any clues, but it wasn’t very helpful -- or was it?
DH: Sometimes it is nice in rehearsals to have little days out and do things that just open your mind up, and I think during week one we set up a screening room somewhere and we got wine, beer, crisps and popcorn and we all sat down and watched Odd Man Out together. None of us had seen it, it’s a fabulous black-and-white film, the kind of film that would never be made now. It starts off as a spy thriller and then becomes this extraordinary artistic metaphor. The first revelation is that Robert Newton only has a tiny part in it. We kept saying, “Which one’s Robert Newton? When’s he coming in?” The most amazing thing is that it really informs Deeley’s speech because he says, “You know I went to see the film and I saw this girl across the theatre and I said to her, ‘Wasn’t Robert Newton fantastic?’” We immediately realized that Deeley’s chosen a very tiny part in the film to talk to the girl about. It just makes it more real to know that in a way.
TS: One last thing, the music -- Thom Yorke from Radiohead composed it -- it’s marvelous -- it sounds as if it being played backwards – is it?
DH: Yes, it is. Well, not all of it -- it goes backwards and forwards. Basically, I love to have music as part of any theatre I direct. I really would love to get young people in to see this play. I was thinking of someone like Philip Glass or Thom, people who write repetitive, compulsive pieces of music. So I emailed Thom and said, “Will you read this play? I know you have never written for the theatre before in your life.” And he emailed back and said, “Okay, I love the play.” Then he said, “The play was written in 1971, so I could synths from that period. What if I wrote music that went backwards and forwards?” I just described all sorts of things that I thought should happen musically and then he sent about six or seven pieces which I thought were so in the world. He’s written a lot of music and I’ve just used four pieces of it. There’s probably thirteen pieces of it that I haven’t used. Which is a shame, but they’re just unnecessary.
TS: And now it’s your turn.
Audience Member #1: This is really more of a comment than a question, but the cyc is very striking and I had this moment of association to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Where he becomes entwined with these women -- so I was wondering…
DH: That’s brilliant. I think your observation is great. I wish I had thought of that. It’s funny how things like that are occurring to me all the time throughout the play. Something that I thought of because of Odd Man Out is that we have a black-and-white world going on in a way. I wondered about starting completely monochrome and building with colors as the play goes on.
Audience Member #2: First, I just wanted to congratulate you on Cyrano De Bergerac; it was a wonderful play. Was there something specific or general about Pinter that prompted his anger?
DH: No, there was never any part of his past that he used as a trigger. But he was certainly one of these people who was almost too sensitive to live in the world. If there was someone coughing in a rehearsal room, it was impossible for him to stay in the room. It seemed to get worse as he got older. I mean in terms of his own life…I know he was evacuated, as a child, to Cornwall during World War II. He was an only child and, I think, was really cossetted by his parents to some degree. He also had what I would call an untrammeled access to his subconscious. He had this fantastically thin skin for everything actually. I don’t know that there was any specific reason he was angry. He was just like that.
TS: He also said in one interview I read that he could open his backyard door and see the garden on fire during the Blitz. That’s a frightening thing for a young person.
DH: Night after night London was on fire and everybody in London lived through that at that time. Pinter told me this story. I haven’t really told this to anybody. His dad was from a Jewish family and was a tailor in a factory in the East End.. And one day his mom said, “Your dad’s forgotten his lunch box, will you run it down to the factory and make sure he gets it?” And he ran, you know all the way through the war-torn streets of East London and got to this factory. He’d never been in there before and he said he went in and there were some stairs up to a caged room and this guy was sitting in it alone. And he went in and said, “I’ve come to give my father his lunch.” And the guy just got up and looked down at the floor, where people were working and he yelled, “Pinter!” And Harold saw his dad, like a tiny little ant, turn around and look up at his boss and then scuffle from where he was all the way up. Harold gives him his lunch. He was astonished that his God, his father, was this much smaller person at work than he was at home. And when his dad got
home, he said something like, “What an asshole that man was, shouting at you.” And his dad hit him and said, “Don’t ever talk about my boss like that!” He was confused about what the politics were and who was bullying whom. In that little microcosm, you’ve got a lot of his plays. Where you stand and how you feel or what you do, can be taken away from you very quickly. Those are ideas that inform his writing.
TS: I definitely think he was not into authority figures. He was a conscientious objector when he was called to serve.
DH: He was a conscientious objector on a lot of things.
Audience Member #3: I was wondering about your process working with Thom Yorke? And how that may or may not have been different from working with other composers you’ve worked with in the past?
DH: The truth is we never met. Well, we have met, but not on this process. I literally emailed him the most elaborate descriptions of things, like maybe this would be a rat scurrying around and then maybe there would be a red ribbon of light or something. I remember writing the most ludicrous things and he would just send back music. And then I suppose what happened was I started to email and say, “okay this music needs to be three seconds shorter and needs to not fade out and needs to stop with a rough ending” and things like that. He would then work on it and send that back to me.
And that was really over six months -- we just started talking about the play and how it should sound and all those sorts of things. And it’s been the most thrilling exchange. I do think he is a genuine artist of our time, an amazing artist. I think probably two days ago I said, “I might need some more music, I’m so sorry.” He’s doing a new album for Radiohead in the south of France. And he said, “Well, just let me know what you need.” I went home after we were done with the second preview, and wrote, “I really think we should just have one more piece of music that could usher the two ladies back to the past,” and he wrote back “What about a record stuck?” And I said, “Okay, I was thinking of a chord or a kettle drum or something like that.” And then I think about five in the morning he sent four pieces of music. And all of them were exquisite. Sometimes what I found is that the music is so present that I can’t use it because it has its own identity and the play is enough on its own.
Audience Member #4: This question has two parts. I’ve seen several of Pinter’s plays, I like them but they require all of your attention. Even after I leave the theatre, I go over it, which is alright, but you can’t be lazy. How do we figure it out?
DH: He famously wouldn’t discuss what the plays were about. And in a way this play is a wonderful example of that. Essentially he believed that if he said, “Oh no, the character is dead,” that it would just diminish the endless reverberations. And it wasn’t necessarily what was in his mind, so he wanted it to have ripples throughout people’s consciousness to keep them thinking about it. So you thinking about it is what he wanted to have happen. There’s a famous story about Alan Ayckbourn directing one of his shows early on, it was The Birthday Party, and they invited Harold to meet all the actors during rehearsals. He loved to go to rehearsals; it’s a shame not to have him here during this. Alan Ayckbourn said, “Can you just tell us a little bit about the character, so something about where he’s been before. We just can’t get to the bottom of why he was doing this.” And Harold said, “Mind your own bloody business.” I think he really thought you shouldn’t pry into his private life or what he was thinking. He just wouldn’t discuss it. And I’m really rather glad now that he’s kept this sort of silence. It forces us to decide for ourselves.
TS: There’s a quote I read, when someone asked him what this play was about, he said, “It
happens, it all happens.” Did you say you have another question, sir?
Audience Member #4: Could you recite a monologue from Cyrano?
DH: Sorry, I can’t remember a monologue from Cyrano! This is a play about memory and I definitely believe I could not remember a monologue from Cyrano.
Old Times plays at the American Airlines Theatre through November 29. To purchase tickets, please visit our website.
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