What does it mean to offer help to someone in need? Once the warm glow’s over, what’s taken root in your life, or theirs? Bristol Old Vic’s new production brings Harold Pinter’s breakthrough play The Caretaker into the twenty-first century, looking at the anxious relationship between those in need in our society, and those with more material possessions but their own inner demons.
The Caretaker begins with Aston (Jonathan Livingstone) inviting Davies (Patrice Naiambana) to stay in the cluttered flat where he lives. Davies has been sleeping rough for a long time, but is proud and combative, nitpicking all of Aston’s small kindnesses – a bed, a pair of shoes. The uneasy rapport between Aston and Davies is broken up when Mick (David Judge) walks in. Mick, it emerges, is the real owner of the building, and Aston’s brother, and he doesn’t like Davies being there. The audience’s expectations are upturned, as we realise that, despite his eccentricities, Davies might be the least disturbed of the three.
The play demonstrates the unique stagecraft that marked Pinter’s fifty-year career. The dialogue is banal on the surface, with the sense of menace lying in the subtext and the famous pauses. The Caretaker was first performed in 1960, but Christopher Haydon’s production brings out contemporary parallels, making it seem like it was written yesterday.
The transient Davies brings to mind both homeless people and refugees, two groups increasingly common and shamefully neglected in our society. “I’ve been left for dead more than once,” he says, bleakly summarising his position. Mick evokes private landlords’ notorious for profiting off the housing crisis. Judge turns a monologue in which he mockingly offers to rent the flat to Davies for the outlandish sum of £350 a year into a bitter mockery of the nonsense language of the housing market, like a SpareRoom advert mixed nonsensically with the smallprint in a letting agreement. In Oliver Townsend’s striking set, the many broken-down objects Aston keeps around the flat are suspended from the ceiling like the aftermath of an explosion, illustrating the sense of life, and society, increasingly falling apart. Throughout the play, all three characters struggle to find some sense of stability and connection, but are thwarted by their inability to trust each other.
The play is anchored by a magnificent performance from Patrice Naiambana. His Davies is a garrulous talker, keeping up a constant stream of patter to deflect the questions he doesn’t want to answer from others or himself. He takes an obvious joy in Pinter’s language, getting constant laughs with lines as simple as “He was a Scotch!” At the same time, there’s a real underlying vulnerability and sadness to his performance, while his final rant against the world is terrifying. Livingstone’s detached Aston is an effective foil, although Judge’s portrayal of Mick as a sociopathic wideboy is slightly one-note. However, the production does a strong job of showing the hidden depths of figures who it’s easy to ignore or stereotype in everyday life.