Theatre review: The Caretaker
Toby Frow’s production of Pinter’s 1960 play sticks too scrupulously to the text
Venue: Gate Theatre
Date Reviewed: February 11th, 2015
Gate Theatre, Dublin
If there is a drama in Harold Pinter’s play from 1960, the work that made his name, it is the drama of identity crisis. A kindly, lumbering man, Aston, whose personality has been crumpled through barbaric treatment, gives shelter to a fast-talking homeless man, who sometimes goes by the name of Jenkins, but is really called Davies. (If he could just get his identity papers from Sidcup, he could “sort myself out”.)
There is another, even more unstable presence in this unhomely west London home: Aston’s brother Mick, whose oil-slick hairdo, thuggish gait and vocal buoyancy prompt Davies to nervously observe: “He’s a bit of a joker, en’ he?” Actually, he’s a wild card. He can be anything he likes.
The same is true of the play, whose social realism and Beckettian absurdity can be parsed and interpreted in any number of ways. Faithful to the letter of the text (if Pinter asks for 30 seconds of silence, then, by God, you’ll get every one of them), Toby Frow’s reverent new production for the Gate is certainly attentive, but it never quite nails its all-important menace.
Its scrupulous adherence accounts for the discrepancies in acting styles: the characters are written as though they belong to different plays. As Davies, Michael Feast gives a jittery physical performance of a Cockney schemer; one part Fagan to two parts Del Boy. Garrett Lombard’s Mick, a physical and psychological bully, has to match eruptive violence with garrulous subterfuge: “What’s the game?” he asks Davies, ominously, as though he would ever play by the rules.
Against these two hucksters, the anchor of the production is Marty Rea. Following a long run of brilliant performances, Rea is still astonishing for his power to transform and transfix. With his shoulders drooped, brow held rigid or twisted like a question mark, his Aston is masterful; a battered spirit somehow still unbroken. “I was quite strong then,” says Aston, sitting still on a bed, in a near monotone, and the earth might split under his quiet tragedy.
Through that speech, the lights fade almost imperceptibly around him, until Aston is the only thing visible on a stage of artful clutter. It’s a nice effect, from lighting designer Mark Jonathan, although when he repeats it shortly after, it begins to feel uncertain. Francis O’Connor’s set is conceptually interesting: the skeletal frame of a creaky building, in a perpetually suspended state of refurbishment, whose beams reach out, four rows deep into the auditorium. Against the play’s comic fixation with property, banking and business, that feels both surreal and satiric: the market, a genuine absurdity, is again threatening to swallow us whole.
But tension bleeds out from between its cracks: the wall-less room is never claustrophobic enough, the silences and prattle stretch and sag, and only the most devout Pinterian will maintain focus. That’s a shame, because the play’s driving, shifting question, most exquisitely understood by Rea, is never meant to be rhetorical: who cares? Until March 21st