Those were the days… or were they?

We speak to Unifaun Theatre producer Adrian Buckle and director Chris Gatt about their upcoming play – a production of Harold Pinter’s dark treatment of nostalgia, Old Times.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
3 March 2015, 8:29am
Brilliant if elusive night out: Laura Best, Mikhail Basmadjan and Pia Zammit • Photo by Joseph A. Borg
Brilliant if elusive night out: Laura Best, Mikhail Basmadjan and Pia Zammit • Photo by Joseph A. Borg
Harold Pinter was a complex and prolific playwright. What led you to choose this particular play out of his oeuvre?

Adrian Buckle: This year will be Unifaun’s 10th Anniversary since our first play.  Ever since I started Unifaun, I was challenged to produce a Pinter or a Shakespeare. No matter how successful my productions, I was always told, “Yes, well done. But you really should be doing a Pinter.” This aside, I always admired Pinter’s work. I remember at the start of my career – pre-Unifaun – I participated in the MADC One Acts (a must for any budding theatre practitioner) and directed Pinter’s One for the Road. 

I enjoyed working on the text so much that I quickly started focusing on the type of theatre I wanted to work on. It has taken me 10 years to do my first Pinter. I considered a number of scripts but the choice fell on Old Times for many reasons. But the main reason I chose this play is that I was thoroughly intrigued by it.  This is a play about relationships that transforms itself into a whodunnit and also into a what-the-hell-is-going-on. It is a dream play, where characters may be real or may be imagined, where the memories they speak of may be actual or may be made up.  It is a challenge for the production team and for the actors and a feast for the audience – Pinter at his best.

Given that this is an intricate and intense three-hander, was it a challenge to choose the right actors, and under what criteria were they chosen?

AB: One of the reasons we chose this play was because the characters fitted the actors available.  I really wanted to work with Pia [Zammit] and Mikhail [Basmadjan] again and I really wanted to do a Pinter play. We considered different plays but the choice fell on Old Times also because the characters fit Pia and Mikhail like a glove.  We looked to cast the last remaining character and immediately thought of Laura [Best], who is a talented and versatile actress. Basically the play was chosen partly because the roles fit the actors. 

Chris Gatt: The reality is that with Pinter you cannot just work with beginners, unless off course you are working within the remits of a drama school. So it had to be people with some experience. Also in the case of Pinter, it had to be a cast who were happy to play off each other, and who are happy to let things happen. The thing about Pinter is that the actors need to know how to riff, how to play the music, the rhythms, the riffs. People often refer to the ‘Pinter pauses’. But one must be wary of them (in fact Pinter himself eventually got to regret his pauses). These pauses are not  empty spaces, they are musical annotations. They are pointers to help the actors understand the score. And in the case of Old Times we are really looking at a fugue. The theme is remembering old times. The fugue is how we remember, would like to remember and don’t remember Old Times.

What kind of development does this play mark for Unifaun? 

AB: Rather than development, it confirms what Unifaun has been doing all these years. We want to produce quality plays for Maltese audiences. Old Times is a quality play and Pia, Mikail and Laura are quality actors. Add to this Chris as director and Romualdo Moretti as set designer and the formula for an astounding production is confirmed. Unifaun has built its reputation by staging quality plays that move away from the mainstream. Our most recent successes include Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm and Brad Fraser’s True Love Lies; quality plays but not the commercial kind of play. We don’t aim to shock people gratuitously or provide easy-going comedies. We strive to create more challenging entertainment, and Old Times fits the bill.

Do you think the particular brand of black humour is germane to Maltese audiences? 

AB: Pinter peppers his script with witty one-liners and comments. This is not a laugh-out -loud comedy, but it is funny nonetheless. The humour is dark but witty. I think that most Maltese patrons will enjoy this brand of humour.

Pinter is often surreal and stylised – how did you opt to tackle his 'world' with this play? 

AB: The first challenge was to design the set. This is a dream play – in that the actions could either be real or imagined – and the set has to reflect this, something that we emphasised in our discussions with our Italian set designer. Pinter is also very precise about his set description. But I think that Moretti has come up with a wonderful set, as he usually does. The world of the characters is surreal. What we are dealing with here is something that could be real or could be imagined.  This is being created through set, lighting and sound.

CG: I think in Old Times, which many consider to be one of his finest works, Pinter is not so much a surrealist as a realist. The play is fragmented, dreamlike, a conundrum wrapped in a riddle, and yet it is brutally honest, impassioned, funny and humane. It is both disarmingly open and elusively secretive, so audiences return to it like they would to a lover who has jilted them. It is both funny and sad, generous and miserly – loving its characters and hating them. If one wants to seek a comparison, it has the logic of a David Lynch sequence, with the insightful qualities of a relationship as explored by Shakespeare and the taut poetry of Samuel Beckett.  The result is a fragmented tone poem of incredible beauty, a rough uncut splinter of a diamond, which holds its interior shine to itself.

How would you describe this particular play within the context of Unifaun’s previous productions? 

AB: There is a lot of good theatre going on at the moment so the stakes are really high. But we want to stick to our guns because challenging theatre is what we do best. Patrons will come back to your productions if they are genuinely entertained. We don’t go to the theatre to learn, we go there to be entertained.  And we seek to entertain people by challenging them.

CG: It’s a frightening, but also exciting challenge, both for the actors and myself. But I believe that if we pull it off, it will make for a brilliant – if very elusive – night out.

Old Times will be playing at St James Cavalier on March 7, 8; 12-15; 19-22. For more information, log on to sjcav.org.  

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...