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Photo by Prudence Upton

The Caretaker

Ensemble Theatre presents THE CARETAKER, by Harold Pinter, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 14th October - 19th November.

The Ensemble Theatre has asked director Iain Sinclair, who brought Arthur Miller’s play A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, a little while ago, to the Ensemble Theatre,  after its initial ‘life’ at the Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo, to a vivid rendering, to revive THE CARETAKER, by Harold Pinter, for us.

THE CARETAKER had its first production in 1960 at the Arts Theatre Club, in London, and was transferred to the Duchess Theatre in the West End and ran for 444 performances. This play was Pinter’s 6th play but his first significant commercial success. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, written earlier in 1958, after withering reviews had closed after only 8 performances. However, an influential critic, Harold Hobson, stood out on his own against the other London critics of the time and enthusiastically praised the writing and predicted a great future for the writer. This review gave Pinter the grit to persist.

Over 50 years Pinter wrote 29 plays as well as screenplays, teleplays, radio plays, short stories, theatre sketches, essays and poetry and was awarded in 2005 the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Legion d’honneur, in 2007. He also directed or acted in radio, television and film productions of his own and other people’s works. He was a fierce, controversial social activist and his speech at the Nobel Prize giving is worth visiting. Despite debilitating illness he persisted performing and in a wheelchair gave a short season of Samuel Beckett’s KRAPP’S LAST TAPE in 2006. He died in 2009.

THE CARETAKER is set in West London in the winter of 1960. Aston (Anthony Gooley) has invited an older homeless man, Davies (Darren Gilshenan), into his attic room flat. Soon Aston’s brother, Mick (Henry Nixon), turns up and a power struggle, a tussle of personalities, begins. These three men have navigated a life path in post war London with different degrees of success. We are invited to witness three damaged and lonely men in truly bleak circumstances attempt to develop opportunities for survival over three acts.

Surprisingly, the experience of the play has room for comedy despite the pessimism that emanates from the vision of the distressed junk filled room (Set and Costume Design, by Veronique Benett) and the costuming of the actors. Davies, as played by Darren Gilshenan, dressed in hand-me-down, found clothing, with no shoes (rather sandals), carries physical tics of nervous stress with an observant and cunning mind – he seems to be constantly looking for the main chance and quickly and relentlessly attempts to assert his dominance over his host, Aston. Aston, contrastingly to Davies, is dressed in a tidy manner and has a living tempo that seems to be artificially becalmed, though benign, patient and generous. He tells us late in the play of an operation that has had a tremendous influence on his life. Mick, Aston’s brother, is the sharpest of the three and appears to be a canny street operator with a sense of responsibility for his brother. He reveals in his actions to have a sense of being the caretaker of the “kingdom” that he and his brother have and of the life long relationship they have made. An intruder who attempts to unbalance that world of the brothers may find themselves caught in a ‘conspiratorial’ fix. When danger of an acquisitive Davies asserts itself, the two brothers glance at each other and stare and smile, before turning to the hostile visitor, together. Who is caretaking who?

(I’ve always imagined Pinter’s Aston and Mick could be inspired by the Kray twins – Reggie and Ronnie, gangsters in the London East End in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. Those two ‘crims’ especially celebrated by Pinter’s audience members – the rich and famous {some Royalty, we read – naughty Princess Margaret} by keeping up to date with them in the gossip pages of their evening papers, or visiting “The Firm’s” nightclub in Soho. On meeting Henry Nixon’s Mick, at the Ensemble the other night, it became a real possibility I thought [without the murdering, of course], he been laden with latent violence and a wicked sense of menace. Tom Hardy’s performance playing both twins in a very under-rated film called LEGEND [2015], is worth catching. Can you read Mick and Aston, into Mr Hardy’s on screen magic? A titillating thought – Pinter inspired by the London life about himself).

Pinter’s early plays are regarded as ‘Plays of Comic Menace’ – a label that Pinter eschewed vigorously – plays that begin in apparently innocent situations that escalate into both a threatening and absurd place. Plays that reveal recognisable individuals in physical circumstances that we can know of, that invite us to relax and enjoy the idiosyncratic fun. We find ourselves gently smiling, even chuckling on acquaintance. We do, indeed, find ourselves even laughing. Though we laugh because of the safety we have in the distanced space between the ‘life on stage’ and our audience seat, for a creeping atmosphere of uncomfortable tension has subtly grown between our new friends. Pinter seemed to enjoy writing in his early plays [e.g. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1958), THE DUMB WAITER (1959),THE CARETAKER (1960),THE HOMECOMING (1964)] in this creeping unease laced with comedy, much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his films of suspense.

The dramaturgical construction of the emotional pressures of the worlds of the plays are carefully laid – brick by brick – with the witty use of language suited to the class of the participants that permits both enlightenment and entertainment. He gives an opportunity for the theatre artists to create a sense of danger in the midst of comic gestures. They need, however, to be careful of playing his works too earnestly or portentously but rather to find as much humour and humanity as possible. Balancing the heartache and laughter. Pinter warns in his notes to production of his play: “THE CARETAKER is funny up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny and it is because of that point that I wrote it.”  This note is applicable for all his work.

Audiences on seeing these plays on the stage for the first time, fifty years ago, did find themselves in much confusion in their observance of the complex intentions of the writer. Pinter was much influenced by Samuel Beckett and in the movement known as The Theatre of The Absurd led by Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, Arthur Adamov, Slawomir Mrozek, Alejandro Jodorowsky, N.F. Simpson, among others, and focused on ideas of existentialism and what happens when human existence lacks meaning or purpose and communication breaks down (a PTSD symptom) – it was a movement emanating, mostly from Europe, in the post World War II environment. Pinter reflecting on his ‘growing up’ in post-War Great Britain wrote plays in search of establishing the restoration and the dignity of man. Pinter did not write plays like Terence Rattigan, or Noel Coward, or John Osborne, or even Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. He wrote differently – he was the leader of a pack in the “modern” times of the 1960’s in the English speaking world.

In the ‘sophistication’ of living through 50 years these plays, in the hindsight of much knowledge, are no longer as complex a puzzlement that they once were (at least for me) and the pleasure of the revival of Pinter’s play for today is in the appreciation of the ‘genius’ of Harold Pinter exhibited in the quality of the writing, especially, when given in such a highly respectful production approach as these artists give.

Each of the actors in Iain Sinclair’s production at the Ensemble, give meticulously observed externalisations of character and are wonderfully adept in their handling of the language of the play and have a keen sense of the mechanics of the dramaturgical construction. I, however, was not completely moved. I felt a disconnect between the characters  that prevented me from surrendering to an alarmed empathy for the battle between each of the men as they attempted to claim the role of being the caretaker of this flat, of this ‘tribe’ of survivors. What I felt lacking was a sense of the backstory of these men. I understood their place in the 1960 setting of the play, on the Ensemble stage, but I could not ‘read’ their past that had brought them to this impasse. I never felt that the actors had really ‘lived’ the character’s lives up to the point to their existence when the play begins.

Davies’, for instance, has lived through two World Wars and huge national economic challenges, Pinter says, “An old man” and in the world of 1960 Britain, I couldn’t read the reason for his accumulated motivation. Nor of the other men (in their thirties)  as to why they were struggling to find a security for their future. I admired the characteristics that Mr Gilshenan had invented but I had no sense of the actual past hardships that had resulted in the physical actions for the character. It seemed to be a wonderful detailed observation but it was a display rather than a lived result of social survival/conditioning. This was less true of the work of Mr Gooley and Nixon, but they were, for me, still, mere physical portraits of great observational skill but not connected or motivated from their character’s lived history. The actors giving  us externalised ‘tics’ rather than defensive growths developed from an internalised life to assist in their day-to-day survival in a post-war London environment.

As well the actors appeared to be disconnected from each other on the stage: three satellites whirling in their separate spaces but not necessarily in the same play. Oddly, they were isolated individuals rather than an ensemble of living humanity, of actual cause and affect, of not knowing their future together, as yet. They were not in the moment of living beings but rather actors of skilled artifice knowing and ‘playing’ to the ending of the play.

This production is still a worthwhile experience for there is much to enjoy. The production appeared to be a deliberate revisionist read of the play. It hurtled at speed through the text and I felt an absence of the proper observance – time length – of the famous “Pinter Pauses” scattered throughout the text which, then,  prevented us from having the proper space/time to enter the thoughts and dilemmas of the characters that, then, undercut our unconscious (or conscious) identification and empathy for these men – I was prevented from having a catharsis at the men’s difficulties. I looked at them, watched them, but in an objective state, not ever in a proper, truly concerned subjective state of moral concern. Maybe this was why I felt disconnected? Because the “Pinter pauses” were elided and not used. The sub-text of the play was not easily made available for me and the prevention of that ‘entry point’ is why I felt the production was a literal read rather than a deeply researched and owned, an alive, in the moment, journey. There was only one layer of experience going on, we were not invited into the sub-textual layer.  (The reviews of Pinter’s memory play BETRAYAL, on Broadway in New York, 2019, also seemed to indicate a revisionist textual speed and the loss of the timing of the “Pinter Pause” – a 90 minute, no interval race through).

I recommend you catch THE CARETAKER (even if it is to see if I am delusional, again).

N.B. Just a little History. John Clark, once Director of NIDA, in his new book AN EYE FOR TALENT, remembers his time in Bristol and working on Pinter’s first play, THE ROOM. He was the Set Designer. It was Directed by Henry Woolf – a fellow student, friend, rival.