Seems like old times (2004)

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Seems like old times (2004)

Post  Admin on Wed Nov 07, 2007 8:55 pm

Seems like old times
It's hard to pin down Jeremy Northam.
No wonder he's relishing his return to the stage in Pinter
Ian Johns, From The Times June 28, 2004

“IT’S REALLY slippery language. We’re still finding our way in.” Jeremy Northam is busy in rehearsals for Harold Pinter’s 1971 play Old Times at the Donmar in London.

In Roger Michell’s revival, Northam plays Deeley whose wife, Kate (Gina McKee), is reunited with her old friend, Anna (Helen McCrory), after 20 years. In a classic Pinteresque struggle for territorial and sexual supremacy, Deeley and Anna trade contradictory memories of their relationship with the enigmatic Kate.

“I have never regarded Pinter’s work as some kind of hallowed text,” says Northam with an affable but guarded thoughtfulness. “Old Times is simply a great, dense, erotic play. It’s our job to make its paradoxical state of affairs work for the audience.”

This will be the 42-year-old Northam’s first stage appearance in five years after a busy film career that has seen his old-fashioned air of matinee idol masculinity make him an acclaimed natural for “period” roles: as Mr Knightley in Emma, the lawyer in The Winslow Boy, the Victorian poet in Possession, Ivor Novello in Gosford Park, and the steely spymaster in Enigma.

“There’s something of the warm beer, the cycle ride to evensong and cricket in the close about period movies that, if you’re not careful, can end up with characters humming Nimrod as they walk down the avenue,” Northam says with a grin. “But done well, they can be as relevant as any contemporary film.”

All these “black tie” movies, as he calls them, are lifted above their costume-drama category by a shared concern with moral and motivational ambiguity. You can even see it in his contemporary American roles, whether it’s the escaped convict who has to pretend to be gay in Happy, Texas or the office drone turned industrial spy who is liberated by his anonymity in the twisty drama Cypher.

The critic David Thomson pinpointed one of Northam’s onscreen qualities when he likened the actor to Novello: “a suave crowd-pleaser yet a hidden man”.

“I always liked the idea of inhabiting other people’s views of the world,” says Northam, who expresses little interest in the kind of stardom that inevitably brings baggage to a part. “Drama acts at its best as an arena for debate, not just about the thing itself.”

He takes his profession seriously, even calls it “honourable”. Perhaps that’s not surprising coming from the son of a Cambridge drama lecturer. He recalls growing up in a household with his sister and two brothers that was “full of books, conversation and music”.

He cites the family’s move to Bristol in the late 1970s, and the productions he saw there at the Old Vic, as inspiring his acting ambitions. After reading English at Bedford College, London, he returned to Bristol and the Old Vic’s theatre school.

After two years in rep at Salisbury (“I really learnt to act there, wending my way through Chekhov, Bennett, Rattigan, musical revue and pantomime”), he found himself at the National, where he famously stood in for the troubled Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet. In 1989 he won an Olivier Award as Most Promising Newcomer for his role as the son of a crooked lawyer in The Voysey Inheritance.

His move into films after a stint at the RSC was equally seamless: days after arriving in Los Angeles he was cast opposite Sandra Bullock in the 1995 thriller The Net. Since then he has combined big-studio films with low-budget independents, America with Europe, period with contemporary.

For him it’s just the nature of the business. “This profession is so random,” he insists. “I’ve just come back from Montreal and Iceland for a thriller called Guy X in which I play an army base commander. I never thought I’d play someone called Lane Woolwrap.” And, he adds with typical self-deprecation, “I get to mangle an American accent again.”

For now his focus is on Old Times: “The play’s point, roughly speaking, is how we construct our own versions of the past, and how other people’s constructions impinge on us. Everything that is said or done in the play is open to doubt or revision.”

Old Times is not only full of nostalgia for the London of Pinter’s early adult life in the 1950s, but also about his affair with the actress Dilys Hamlett — to whom he sent a copy of the play with a note, saying: “This will ring bells”.

“Anna has a speech in the play in which she recalls the heady days rushing from gallery to concert to play,” says Northam. “I asked Harold if it was like that. He said: ‘Well, that wasn’t my life at all’.”

As always, Pinter likes to keep us guessing. One leaves Northam feeling that he probably likes it that way, too.

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