Harold Pinter in Adelaide

To Her Majesty’s for the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Pinter’s sixth play, it opened in April 1960 and ran forever (444 performances), his first commercial success, though by no means his first critical one (Harold Hobson had famously extolled the short-lived Birthday Party two years earlier.)

The gently raked stage, littered with junk and detritus (old suitcases, a lawn mower, a gas stove, a cheap plaster Buddha) is reminiscent of Steptoe and Son. From the skylight hangs a bucket for the artfully timed drips. Back we are in impoverished and clapped-out postwar East London. Pinter was living, or subsisting, in a similar boarding house while he wrote The Caretaker. And how quintessentially English the play feels, with its study of meanness, social alienation, and the sharp limits of hospitality. Next door live the ‘Indians’, taking over, spreading ‘blackness’ in the bathroom, on the banister. And who is most outraged by the immigrants but Davies, of course – the visitor, the mendicant, the petty thief, the ‘stinky’ outcast who comes to stay.

Ever nomadic in the theatre, I moved closer to the stage for the last two acts (much the better half). From the second row Jonathan Pryce’s vocal and physical artistry were palpable, especially in the searing final scenes as the incongruous trio battles it out for ownership of the leaky hovel – battles it out, too, for something more than that, for a kind of metaphysical stake. When Davies, threatened with ejection, listens to his fate, Pryce, standing there quivering, not saying a word, acts with every muscle, every nerve ending. Pryce, Welsh accent and all, has been performing the role of Davies – the tramp who comes to stay – in London, and it shows; his is a commanding performance.

Alan Cox – as Aston – the older brother, who rescues Davies, is blandly memorable – forever fiddling with the cord on the old toaster that will never be fixed, that will never warm (like the sole electric fire in the room, which is never switched on). In the great monologue that ends Act Two (the straightest, saddest thing in the play), Aston recalls being committed as a teenager because of his ‘hallucinations’ (‘I used to get the feeling I could see things … very clearly … everything … was so clear’), and describes the forced electric shock treatment that follows. This long, crucial scene is perfectly timed, perfectly judged – almost unbearable to watch. The lighting dims slowly, obscuring Davies on the opposite bed, but he remains faintly visible in the gloom, slowly lowering his head and sobbing noiselessly in recognition of Aston’s tale, possibly recalling his own experience of institutionalised terror and cruelty. Then – a little jarringly, without the usual break – the lights go up and these two pathetic men resume whatever is left of their depleted lives.

Alex Hassell plays Mick – the younger brother, the successful one, the vainglorious owner of ‘the van’. It’s a sinister performance, and so it should be. This is a play about menace, terror, pure and simple. Mick’s furtive second entrance, when he creeps up on Davies, is amazingly effective, producing the kind of frisson one normally only experiences at the opera. Hassell – young, wide-eyed, strongly built, good-looking in a kind of minatory way, the only healthy-looking one on stage – reminds us not of a young Alan Bates (who played Mick in New York and went on to film The Caretaker with his co-stars, Donald Pleasance and Robert Shaw), but of Bates’s great wrestling rival Women in Love – Oliver Reed. Hassell projects the same dangerousness, the same mercurial potential, swaggering round the stage, hands thrust into the pockets of his leather jacket. Even when he offers Davies a cheese sandwich from his pocket, he might be brandishing a pistol. And there is a brilliant riff when Mick dreams of renovating the slum, and imagines what he will do to every surface, every nook: ‘… I’d have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares. I’d have those colours re-echoed in the walls. I’d offset the kitchen units with charcoal-grey worktops …’ At which point I found myself strangely missing ABR’s old office in Richmond.

The language throughout is crisp, elliptical, masterly. Questions are taunts, feints, barks – rarely invitations. Kenneth Tynan – slower than Hobson to recognise Pinter’s genius – came round with The Caretaker: ‘Mr Pinter is a superb manipulator of language, which he sees not as a bridge that brings people together but as a barrier that keeps them apart.’

It is a long play (two and a half hours, with one interval), and a hugely demanding one for the three actors, but they perform it impeccably. Admirers of seriously good acting will not want to miss the Adelaide season of Pinter’s hilarious and deeply unconsoling masterpiece.

Peter Rose
Editor
Australian Book Review

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