Harold Pinter, The Caretaker
Berkshire Theater Company, Stockbridge
Jonathan Epstein – Davies
James Barry – Mick
Tommy Schrider – Aston
Eric Hill, director
Jonathan Wentz, set design
Harold Pinter is still very much alive, a potent and welcome presence in the world because of his political work, but when The Caretaker, or any other of the plays from the height of his fame in the theater, is produced, most of us take it as a classic from the past. After all Pinter’s announcement in 2005 of his retirement from the stage marked a significant break, and the world has changed significantly since the sixties. His powerful Nobel Prize lecture, Art, Truth, and Politics, meticulously prepared and taped by BBC 4, shows his current way of reaching his audience in a time when indifference, commercialism in the media, and unofficial censorship make it virtually impossible to get salutary and unpleasant messages across to anyone who is not already convinced. We deal with people who disagree with us by marginalizing them. When he wrote The Caretaker in 1959, his first commercial success, he established himself as the quintessential all-round man of the theater. He already had considerable experience as an actor and director, in addition to the plays he had already written, of which The Birthday Party and The Dumbwaiter are still performed often. From there he continued his threefold theatrical activity on mainstream stages and on the screen. His collaboration with the brilliant director Joseph Losey was perhaps the peak of his film work, as it was for Losey, but it was also characteristic of Pinter’s own theatrical style, which is also well documented in films of his plays, beginning with Clive Donner’s 1963 film of The Caretaker with two members of its original cast, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance.
This style, based on small casts of largely male actors, focussed on small fragments of dialogue and action and exploited rapid, even violent changes of mood and long silences to convey the ambiguous interrelationship between reality and unreality that haunts the existence of his characters. The absurdist overtones of his dramaturgy, as essential as it is to what he has to say, should not blind us to the fact that Pinter generally wrote plays that tell stories about specific characters. Character is as important for Pinter as it was for Rattigan or Shaw. What’s more, as nihilistic as these plays may seem, they are founded on a strong moral sensibility—developed in Pinter’s youth as a lower middle-class Jew in East London—which feels generous sympathy for the downtrodden, as well as intense outrage at exploitation and injustice. Hence there is a direct line from Pinter’s bleak plays of the fifties and sixties to his present denunciation of the Iraq war. You can watch his Nobel speech both as a message and as theater. (What is political rhetoric other than a form of theater? What would theater be without rhetoric?) In any case it is always good to return to the Nobel speech, which should be remembered as the classic expression of what the Iraq war means, and will mean to posterity, if it ever ends.
The passage of so many years should mean that Pinter’s stage work is open for revision. With period performances preserved on film, there is no need to base a performance tradition religiously on those first productions. New perspectives should be welcome. I’m not sure if Eric Hill’s current production of The Caretakerat the Berkshire Theatre Festival should be called a revision; it is not that radical. Rather, this evocative and satisfying performance seemed more like a natural evolution. In it, atmosphere (now the atmosphere of bygone times, the seedy London of the late 1950’s. Can one call this nostalgia?), character, and empathy have come to the fore. Jonathan Epstein’s Davies is almost entirely sympathetic. He is less ofa Cockney manipulator and more of a victim. Certainly the author, who made his character without property or cash and almost without identity, would not object. According to him, only the lack of a decent pair of shoes lies between him and his all-important papers, which will give him and identity, but of course we can’t trust him any more than Mick or Aston. In Pinterland suffering does not improve the character. If Davies is a victim, it is less from Mick’s bullying than his own character. Poverty and defe
at may have narrowed Davies’ options and his worldview to what he can carry on his own body, but his finickiness is what paralyses him in life. He exists at the mercy of his desires and aversions. Having nothing, he can be the judge of everything, shoes, cheese, sandwiches, people. Mr. Epstein brings out the Dickensian side of the character, and masterfully, too. He is in total command of Davies’ accent and manner, enriching the character’s cockney inflections with his rich bass-baritone voice. In fact, Epstein is truly an actor’s actor. Every aspect of his craft is highly developed; movement, voice, his inhabitation of his costume, his imagination of his character, are all a joy to behold and to hear. He is aware of the finest detail of his performance, as well as the ongoing mood surrounding his character…and, to know that Davies stinks, we don’t have to wait for Aston to tell us that in the third act.
James Barry used his chiseled high cheekbones and turned-up nose, pale complexion and slicked-back hair to project Mick’s sleazy upward mobility and inherent cruelty. His gentler side is no more than his weakness. He may have work and money, but he is impotent when it comes to his plans for future, at least in terms of the house. He is no more able to produce results than Davies, whom he wants to hire to carry out the improvements he envisions, or his brother Aston, whose future depends on a shed that never gets built. He spends his time looking for tools he thinks he may find useful, but all he succeeds in doing is to amass a collection of useless junk in the garret he shares with Mick, who never sleeps there, and Davies, who does. Aston is a collector, but he is only the “sitting tenant.” Only Mick enjoys the full rights of property as an absentee landlord. Tommy Schrider portrayed Aston with a fitting mixture of sensitivity and confusion, which we learn to understand as insanity. The labile interactions among the three are as significant on psychological and ontological planes as on a political level. We are as free to take Davies as the people and Mick as the state and Aston as the artist or thinker as we are to understand Aston as Labour and Mick as the Tories. The seedy garret, by the way, was lovingly created in all detail, with piles of real junk of the sort that is hard to find nowadays. leaving me to infer that the Festival must maintain a substantial collection of these odds and ends.
I enjoyed every minute of this perceptive and extremely capable production. It flowed naturally, and I would not have thought about its pace, unless it had been brought up in a question and answer session afterwards. Apparently one local critic praised director Eric Hill for making cuts and reducing the play to a length more appropriate for our ADD-ridden times. Not so, said Artistic Director Kate Maguire, seconded by Mr. Hill. Not a word was cut, but Pinter’s pauses were shortened in places to give the play a faster pace. Also the interval between Acts I and II was reduced to a barely noticeable minute or two to allow the audience a stretch, and if it was observed, I didn’t notice it. But the result was a 30 to 40 minute reduction in The Caretaker’s running time. (Why this should matter, I don’t know. People are supposed to be on holiday up here in the Berkshires!) The reduction the pauses seemed to do no harm to the flow and proportions of the play: it all seemed natural enough. However, the omission of the interval did disturb the play’s proportions, creating a very long first act and a short second act. Furthermore, only seconds in narrative time are meant to pass between the last action of the first act and the first of the second. Placing a real interval between them creates a jarring sense of unreality essential to the play. It was a serious error to omit the interval. Pinter wanted his audience to get up and mill around and have a drink between “What’s the game?” and “Well?” Timing is everything in Pinter.
Everyone is to be congratulated on this marvellous production. Apart from this one reservation of mine, it was a vivid success. However, it was different from what Pinter gave his audiences in 1960. It is gentler, more empathetic and atmospheric, lacking the ferocity and brutality of the period. When Mick crushes Davies under his shoe, there is no sense of danger and violence. It seems rather a ritualistic gesture of dominance and degradation. (I concede that this is practically almost impossible to achieve in such an intimate theater as the Unicorn.) As fine as Messrs. Epstein, Barry and Schrider are, they are little inclined to the venomous behavior at which their predecessors— actors like Bate, Pleasence, and Hurt—have excelled. Let’s just say that The Caretaker, now a classic, has mellowed with age, even if its author has not.