Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Caretaker / Harold Pinter - A Celebration

I was well chuffed when I heard that Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, starring Jonathan Pryce as Davies, was coming to London. So chuffed, in fact, that I bought top-price tickets straight away – about two hours before I got an email with a two-for-one offer. Tossbags.

I've had a soft spot for the play since I studied it at sixth-form college and it became part of my Teenage Cultural Awakening. Apart from grinding through Henry IV Part One for my O-level, I'd never really come across drama or the theatre until I started my A-levels.

When I discovered something as obviously modern, stylish and profound as The Caretaker, it was like a switch had been flicked in my noddle. My horizons suddenly expanded the same way they had when I first saw the Once in a Lifetime video on Top of the Pops a few years earlier, and I developed an almost insatiable appetite for culture - especially literature - that still defines how I spend most of my spare time.

If you're unfamiliar with the play, it tells the story of Davies, a tramp who is brought home one day by Aston, one of a pair of brothers who run a shabby boarding house. Once he's got his knees under the table, Davies tries to play Aston and his brother, the unpredictable Mick, off against each other to cement his position as caretaker of the house.

Pryce is perfect as Davies, whose pathetic standing at the start attracts our sympathy, but whose snarling opportunism takes over as he fights for survival. Peter McDonald is moving as the inward-looking and damaged Aston, but I didn't really think that Sam Spruell was sufficiently menacing as Mick.

Maybe I was spoiled by the edition I studied from, which featured Alan Bates (as Mick) glowering magnificently from the cover. Even the fact that Spruell's Mick was wearing a brown leather jacket instead of a black one seemed to mitigate his presence.

Watching the play and remembering the significance of Sidcup, Aston's shed and Mick's plans for the house - and even the vacuum cleaner and poor old Buddha - was like meeting up with some old friends and having a few drinks for the first time in years. The dialogue still crackles with life, turning on a sixpence from humour to menace as the relationships in the house shift.

I enjoyed the production, but last night I had my Pinter cobwebs blown away good and proper by a BFI preview of Harold Pinter: A Celebration, which will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday (24 Jan, 9pm).

Having not paid a lot of attention when we booked it, I'd assumed it would be a standard biographical documentary. However, it's something altogether much richer than that.

It's a record of an event that took place at the National Theatre in June 2009, when a stellar cast of actors performed extracts from Pinter's work, directed by Ian Rickson, the former artistic director of the Royal Court.

The performances covered the author's full range, from a poem he wrote as a 20-year-old to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As well as extracts from his better-known plays, there were also moving renditions of his personal and political poetry and hilarious extracts from his memoirs.

There are too many highlights to pick out, and the event was beautifully structured, enlightening and inspiring. It's a reminder of the range of Pinter's genius and makes you want to go back and immerse yourself in his work deeper than you ever have before.

Review of the National Theatre event (Michael Billington, The Guardian)


Emma said...

Thinking about booking tickets to this myself, definitely will do so now, but was wondering who sent you the 2 for 1 offer? Thanks! Emma

Tom Murphy said...

Hi Emma - I think you end up on the Ambassador Theatre Group's mailing list if you buy a ticket through their site. We get quite a few offers. The Trafalgar Studios also have a Facebook group that sometimes doles out special offers

peter said...

Hi Tom,
I enjoyed reading your piece on Pinter's The Caretaker. It's a great play. I always think that Aston's shed is a wonderful symbol for that idea of wholeness and integrity that some people are forever searching for, that need for "completion" in some aspect of life.
There is great humour and humanity in the play, as there is in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.