I love silliness, clowning and generally messing around, but sometimes the academic in me can’t resist the classics. I recently saw a production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Bristol Old Vic. It got me thinking about how we ask other people for what we want. In particular, how we convince people that we are worth their time.
Pinter’s three characters want entirely different things- be it power, safety, a home, friendship, new shoes, or simply to build a shed. The crux is that they cannot work out a system in which everyone can have what they need. Thus, they are reduced to the age-old system of ‘The Biggest Fish In The Pond Gets All The Grubs’.
I was once in the car with my dad, when the song: ‘I’m Your Handyman’ by James Taylor began to play. We scoffed at James’ claim that he could fix any broken heart he turned his hand to.
To this day I remain unconvinced whether I would let a stranger from the radio loose with a screwdriver on my vital organs. But, I must admit, his smooth, assured confidence did sway me… It certainly worked in Mick’s favour in The Caretaker.
The play begins with Mick’s brother Aston bringing in Davies from life on the streets, and offering him the spare, albeit freezing, bed. Davies is smelly, racist, and… Let’s just say he doesn’t possess the seductive, dulcet tones of James Taylor. He pleads to Mick for employment as a caretaker, and is instead ensnared into Mick’s devious plans to kick him out.
It was painful to watch as Mick preyed on Davies’ weaknesses. Humiliating him with an assassin’s precision, he plunged Davies into the desperate caves of rock bottom. Despicable though he was, he was so artfully calculated you almost admired Mick as he dominated the room with his cold, condescending confidence.
The set: a precarious whirlwind of miscellaneous objects that dangled, swirled and climbed across the stage- was spectacular. On first sight, the general reaction of the audience was to gasp and ferret for their phones.
Mick’s appearance was enigmatic. As the audience filed in, he lay hauntingly still on a makeshift chaise-longue amidst the domestic rubble. It only became apparent he was not a mannequin as he sprang to life, exiting with a menacing prowl as if he was never there.
The director, Christopher Haydon’s bold decisions and subtle direction created a clear landscape for of the emotional charge of the play to erupt like a hurricane throughout the theatre.
I was captivated. The characters captured my heart; my body felt transported, beating in the heart of the play. Despite my super-cheap seat, I felt happily glued to the spot and like I was floating outside myself all at once- allowing me respite from the creeping numbness enveloping my buttocks. I now see how Shakespeare’s first audiences were able to stand for four hours through Henry V- there’s something about being totally captivated that makes you forget about your physical discomfort and drift into another world.
Haydon was interested in how people find a home in impoverished conditions, a concept echoed by people currently attempting to cross borders and seek asylum. I felt this insight was introduced through the clear metaphor of Mick’s unwillingness to share his space with someone in need, and expanded through Haydon’s interpretation of the shady humour in the text. The bitter irony of black actor, Patrice Naiambana, playing Davies- who often complains about the “blacks across the street” was not lost on the Bristol audience. Pinter himself comments on the humour in his writing:
“It is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it is because of that point that that I wrote it.”
Humour is as endless and reliable as a blanket of clouds over Weston-Super-Mare, yet it can often dampen the mood. Haydon recognised that an audience’s laughter in The Caretaker can come across as laughing at vulnerable people. The actors’ use of Pinter’s snappy, U-bend dialogue meant that laughter was cleverly redirected and the audience’s sympathies remained with the characters.
Amazingly, the dynamic pace also allowed me room to breathe and understand the story. I was left feeling that I understood the intentions of the writer, director and characters. This clarity spurred me to generously invest my emotions and time to the piece- a mutually beneficial relationship for performer and audience.
It just goes to show how gentleness and confidence can go hand in hand to create a piece of theatre that was beautifully brimming with humanity.