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What Does an Emotional Vortex Look Like?

Date: Sep 24, 2015

How stars, ice, and lava influenced the set for Broadway's Old Times

Set designer Christine Jones didn't take Harold Pinter's scripted stage directions literally when she was conjuring the visual world of the new Broadway production of his play Old Times. She digested them with a gut instinct.

"The design was a direct result of a very strong visceral response to the material," she says. "With other projects, I tend to go through a lot more storyboarding, collaging and research — a kind of forensic process where I try to have the design reveal itself. This really came about as an endless emotional response."

As a result, instead of a naturalistic take on Pinter's spare dictate of a "farmhouse" with "a long window up center" and "two sofas," what emerged in Jones's vision was an abstract spinning universe and, eventually, the heat, cold, and hardness of the natural world.

Pinter's elusive investigation of a married couple's memories and experiences, triggered by the arrival of an old friend of the wife, prompted Jones to start at the stage floor itself — with the idea of a turntable. The shifting stage was a way to suggest the play's swirl of personal histories, intimate disclosures, and elusive truths.

"It was not about seeing an image so much as feeling how the internal emotional life of the characters was imprinting itself onto me as I was reading," she says, adding that she was struck by "the emotional churning happening below the surface, this sort of emotional vortex that all three of them are caught in."

In conversation with director Douglas Hodge, it was decided that the turntable would delicately — almost imperceptibly — shift throughout the first act and then fully move for the act change, rearranging the existing sofas to become a bedroom.

"The hope is that you don't necessarily know the set is subtly shifting," Jones says. "We wanted to reflect the sense that the characters have: What's true? What's memory? What's imagined?" (The play was written in two acts, but is presented without intermission at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre.)

"It didn't seem to be vitally important that it be a whole new ground plan or a room," Jones says of the scene change. "You do want a sense that in some way the stakes or the location — even if it's the emotional location — have shifted between act one and act two. The dance is getting more dangerous. You feel like you are coming into a different moment or rhythm."

Starting with that turntable, Jones, who is new to designing Pinter, and director Hodge, a frequent actor and director of Pinter plays, then built the production's physical world from the stage up. In conversations, they landed on elements from nature.


"Doug talked about seeing the characters through windows that had been rained upon, and the way that a rain-dropped window distorts your perspective," she says. "Then we started to look at ripples in a lake. When a raindrop falls in the center, these symmetrical circles radiate. When you look at ripples, it's sort of amazing: it looks like a turntable."

With those images in her head, Jones started doing research and "fell upon these beautiful photographs of stars in the sky." When the exposure of a sky-aimed camera is opened for an extended period, it records the movement of starlight in the sky, she explains, adding, "You see these beautiful movements of the stars, in these radiating circles."

Thus, the expansive painted backdrop behind the sofas shows widening, perhaps menacing, circles of light from ceiling to floor. "The imagery all got pulled into that vortex," she says. "Ripples in the water, the grooves on a record, the turntable, the stars in the sky — all of it felt like the same language."

Hodge also shared the thought that ice might be an element in the house, leading to the reinvention of the aforementioned "long window up center" as an opalescent sheet of ice. Black slabs of hardened lava, another implacable element of the natural world, rim the set.

"Doug wanted the characters to feel like they are at the edge of the world, they're by the sea, that things are erupting below the surface but at the same time things are in a sort of suspended state," Jones says. "Memories are suspended in this ether that they're trying to access."

Pinter's more experimental work, like Old Times, invites multiple interpretations of what's happening in the script. Is Jones okay with audiences drawing varying conclusions about her design? "Absolutely — I love that," she says. "I just wish I could hear what they all are!"


Follow Kenneth Jones at @ByKennethJones. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top photo: Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly in Old Times. Photo by Joan Marcus. Set model photo courtesy of Christine Jones.

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