On Friday night I had the pleasure of seeing Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, directed by Lewis Cowen and dedicated by him to the memory of the late and lovely Rosemary Shaw, at our wonderful Wharf Theatre.
Much has been written about the Nobel prize winning Pinter’s plays that he seems to have rejected as being irrelevant, including the term ‘comedy of menace’ and comments about ‘Pinteresque pauses’. The Caretaker is said to have been inspired by the playwright’s own experiences of living in relative poverty and his observations of the comings and goings of acquaintances in Chiswick in the 50s and was first performed in 1960.
It’s a play about three blokes in a room with a bucket waiting for something to happen. The absurdist influence of Beckett, with whom Pinter had a mutually beneficial creative relationship, is strong in this one.
The production began and ended with, according to my fellow back row enthusiasts (it’s a leg room thing), the sound of Charmaine by Mantovani, with rain noises and the occasional timely knell of a drip in a bucket punctuating the uncomfortable silences. The shabby and well designed set consisted of two old beds, a window with a tattered net and a light bulb without a shade, odd planks of wood leaned up against flaky-painted walls, a toaster with a broken plug, a pristine Buddha on an empty stove, and numerous other pieces of scrap that only a hoarder might consider to have any kind of potential.
Mick (played by Stuart Mayling), a man with a van, and his brother Aston (Pete Wallis), a quiet and slow moving person with plans for a shed, appear to live in a semi-derelict house in West London where nothing much happens, until one night in winter when Aston rescues a tramp from a fight and brings him home to stay for a while in order to help him get back on his feet. Davies (Lewis Cowen) proves to be a demanding, ungrateful, racist, and manipulative house guest who comes with a multitude of unlikely stories and particular paranoias, and the play deals with how these three very different but all seemingly broken in some way characters relate to each other in the claustrophobic environment of the room.
There is only one moment when all three appear to be truly on the same page in this play, and that is the moment when a drip drops noisily into the bucket and they all look up at the same time. Otherwise their conversations and interactions are clipped and disconnected, their sentences short, their speeches broken and circular, and their eye contact infrequent.
‘You see’ said Lesley Mills enthusiastically in the interval, ‘they all have a plan, but nothing ever comes together.’ And indeed they do; the edgy and volatile Mick has dreams of turning the flat into a penthouse (‘Listen out for the afromosia teak veneer!’ said Lesley); Aston intends to build a shed in the garden if only given the right tools and circumstances; and Davies – Davies has all manner of good intentions if only the weather goes his way and he can procure the right pair of shoes to take him to Sidcup where he can pick up his papers and prove his identity.
It was around the time that Pinter wrote this play that Eric Berne was engaged in writing papers on transactional analysis, but it wasn’t until 1964 that he published ‘The Games People Play’, in which he describes the game of ‘Why Don’t You – Yes But’, which is a mind game in which a helpful person is constantly defeated in their efforts to assist an individual by various excuses which prevent that individual from ever getting a resolution to a particular problem.
Thus it is to some degree with all three characters but is most observable with Davies and his mythical journey to Sidcup. It’s not about the shoes that the kindly Aston tries to provide him with being never quite right, or the bed he is offered being in the wrong place. It’s about his fear of responsibility. Every time he is taken at his boastful word and threatened with anything remotely like a job or a solution to a problem, he becomes visibly vulnerable and backs away. We never get to find out what if any trauma made him like he is, or what the nightmares are that threaten Aston’s fragile sleep and peace, and he never becomes the caretaker. Eventually he goes too far in his efforts to drive a wedge between the brothers and in Aston’s words makes ‘too much noise’, and the play ends with the brothers united against a common enemy and Davies protesting in vain about having to leave.
Pinter did consider killing Davies off, but instead chose to have Aston control his demons, Mick smash the pristine Buddha, and the tramp merely consigned to utter darkness.
One of the reasons I went to see this play was to watch Lewis Cowen in the role of Davies, and whilst during his undoubtedly impressive and sensitive performance of tricky stream of consciousness lines and twitchy movements there were many moments where he seemed to disappear and there was only Davies however hard I looked, I do have to say that I was slightly surprised at the amount of prompting he required so far in to the run.
Stuart Mayling did a great job as the imposing and possibly psychopathic Mick, bringing an air of uncertain threat to the room every time he entered and convincingly playing Davies at his own mind games and winning.
But Pete Wallis’s performance as Aston, damaged in the past by a brutal experience of electric shock treatment and taking refuge in a safe life of silence and simple domestic ritual, was a stunning piece of understated genius. I couldn’t take my eyes off him for the entire time he was on the stage, except for the moment when I had to wipe away a tear during his monologue as he described the clear and quiet sight he had before they put the pincers on him, and I and the audience caught a glimpse of the livelier, albeit less stable, man he may have been before.
There are places in Pinter’s play where people laugh that are supposed to be comedy but aside from the bit of slapstick where the three characters wrestled with the bag and the bit with the drip, I didn’t laugh at all.
Because this is a world that still exists and that some of us recognise. A timeless, hidden world where people with mental health problems live in rooms full of junk and never quite get anything together. Either you know about that world or you don’t, and Pinter clearly did.
The Caretaker was without doubt one of the most thought provoking and well executed productions I have seen at The Wharf.
Well done Lewis Cowen, and well done all.
© Gail Foster 4th February 2020