The TheatreguideLondon Review
When Harold Pinter's play about two strange brothers who take in a tramp and then throw him out again first appeared forty years ago, the combination of Pinter's patented elliptical language and his refusal to fill in complete back stories for everyone confused audiences as much as it intrigued them. (Unsure just what he was doing, most critics jumped to the conclusion that it was some sort of allegory - Humanity torn between Heaven and Hall, that sort of thing.)
But, as often happens with innovative artists, the rest of us finally caught up with him, and when Pinter directed a revival for his original star, Donald Pleasance, ten years ago, the play seemed totally realistic, and no more or less than it claimed to be on the surface: the story of a man offered one last chance in life and losing it.
Now, for its 40th anniversary (and Pinter's seventieth birthday), director Patrick Marber has taken The Caretaker one more step, anchoring it so solidly in naturalism that it hardly seems the same play.
Let's begin with the brothers. Most revivals (and most critical interpretations) have built on the original production's stylized characterisations. Alan Bates' Mick remains one of the seminal performances in modern theatre - jumping without warning from sinister stillness to hyperactivity, rattling off lengthy speeches like the riffs of a jazz musician. And the various actors who played the more sedate Aston have tended to use his reticence and history of shock therapy as the cue to play him as a walking zombie.
But under Marber's direction, both brothers are played well within the definition of ordinary blokes. Douglas Hodge's Aston may be a bit slow of speech, but he's a functioning human being capable of emotion, and that makes a world of difference. His few stories of his past, especially the extended account of his therapy, really bother him; and because they are horror stories to him, they are all the more shocking to us.
Rupert Graves' Mick is also considerably more humanized, and not just an abstract menace (Pinter fans: look how far I got into the review before I had to use that buzzword). His set pieces - the "You remind me" attacks and the "teak veneer" description of his ideal home - aren't just self-contained arias, but the ruminations of a man with a history and a life outside this room.
(Pinter, usually very protective of his text, has allowed this cast dozens of tiny changes that have the cumulative effect of changing the tone from the stylized, almost poetic Pinter-speak to more naturalistic, conversational English - another way in which this doesn't feel like the same play.)
A side-effect of anchoring the brothers so fully in a human world is the redress of an imbalance that Pinter himself allowed in the 1990 revival, which was a star vehicle for Donald Pleasance, with the others pointedly reduced to supporting position. Marber reminds us that the play is about three emotionally wounded characters, not just one.
Which brings us to Michael Gambon's Davies, as filthy, unattractive and unsympathetic a character as you're ever likely to see on a stage. Where Pleasance showed us an aged street fighter whose insecurities were driven by some secret rage and the hints of a dimly-remembered more respectable past, Gambon gives us a feral street rat.
This man has no past other than as scavenger, predator and victim. Left alone in the junk-filled room (a bit overdone in Rob Howell's design), he doesn't wander about in idle curiosity, but scrabbles frantically for something to steal. His choosiness about charity, evasions about his past and pretenses to respectability haven't a hint of pathos or fragile dignity about them (We don't believe in those papers down in Sidcup for an instant).
What they do have is a lot of humour, and those familiar with the play will find laughs they never realized were there before. Where Pleasance gave us Davies the tragic figure losing his one last chance through his own insecurity, Gambon gives us Davies the comic fool, totally out of his depth from the start and only making himself more ridiculous with every attempt to stay afloat.
As I said, this is virtually a whole new play Patrick Marber has found in The Caretaker, and even those who revere the more familiar interpretation will find this an exciting revelation.
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Review - The Caretaker - Comedy 2000