Living the thigh life at the new Harold Pinter Theatre

Ian Rickson's "Old Times" reviewed.

There’s a moment during Ian Rickson’s new production of Pinter’s Old Times when you can’t stop looking at Kristin Scott Thomas’s feet. Her heel demands your gaze as it hesitates in mid air, motionless, before she flicks her leg to stand astride Rufus Sewell’s thigh. He looks up at her from his seat on the edge of a bed, and his formerly jaunty demeanour disappears in a sizzle of chemistry and possibility. The moment hangs, almost too long, and then she’s gone, thrusting herself backwards across the stage in a flurry of guilt and remembrance.

This little interplay is just one of the occasions when you realise that Old Times isn’t simply the play’s title – it’s an omen. Set in the rural home of a married couple, Kate and Deeley, it dramatises the visit of an old friend, Anna, with whom Kate lived as a girl in London 20 years earlier. Breezy reminiscences about visits to galleries and evenings huddled before a gas fire quickly give way to darker, more difficult memories as Deeley and Anna recall parallel yet contradictory versions of the past and, indeed, of Kate. With very few lines of her own, Kate exists almost entirely as a blank canvas for the other two to paint on.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna, Lia Williams as Kate
and Rufus Sewell as Deeley
. Photograph: Simon Annand

Much has been made in the publicity surrounding this production of how Scott Thomas and Lia Williams are alternating in the roles of Anna and Kate (a casting decision that gives weight to the idea that the two characters are not separate people but two possible outcomes of the same woman). The night I saw it, Scott Thomas gave a bleak, compelling performance as Anna, while Williams was suitably silent and brooding as Kate. Sewell interspersed Deeley’s subdued rage with the odd comedic note – an excellent foil to Scott Thomas’s cynical sighs. Because most people in the audience are unlikely to see the play more than once, the possibilities provided by the reversal are surely of little interest. A sceptic might say it’s nothing more than a box-office wheeze to pack out a newly rechristened theatre.

This production, with its autumnal, muted set and distinguished cast, is the first Pinter performed here since the West End’s Comedy Theatre was renamed in the great man’s honour. And, as befits the first opportunity to see a Harold Pinter play in the Harold Pinter Theatre, Old Times is laden with the playwright’s trademarks: scattergun dialogue interjected with pauses and silences; menacing undercurrents of manipulation; portentous lines that remain utterly unexplained (the repeated “I remember you dead” being a memorable instance in this play); and a niggling feeling that underlying it all is just abject, aimless misery. You leave the theatre feeling confused, dejected and more than a little unsatisfied – for the Pinter fan, it has everything.

 

Harold Pinter in 1979. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle