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Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Reviewed

Cressida Peever

The Caretaker
Old Vic Theatre, London
Dir. Matthew Warchus

A simple interpretation of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker might give us three characters begging for the audience’s sympathy: Davies, an old man down on his luck; Aston, victim of electrotherapy and the compassionate soul who takes Davies in; and Mick, the ultimate custodian of the other two, with unrealised ambition. But Matthew Warchus’ interpretation (currently running at The Old Vic) distorts this reading, giving the characters new purpose and revealing hidden motivations.

My reading of the play had always left me with the question: why does Aston bring Davies home? My previous explanation was that Aston collects things: toasters, papers, jigsaws. Rob Howell’s set design is a wondrous amassing of old junk, which gives the impression of Aston’s careful curation. It had seemed natural that Aston should want to bring Davies home to add to his collection of strange and mostly useless paraphernalia.

Yet Warchus’ production portrays Aston (Daniel Mays) as socially awkward and disgusted by his guest from the beginning: he makes an effort not to stand too close to Davies, and ignores much of what he says. Meanwhile Davies, played by Timothy Spall in grubby clothes and with wild, straggling hair, makes no attempt to endear himself to his host: he is aggressive, lazy, objectionable, and often unintelligible, his speech descending into grunts and splutters, and thus seemingly perfunctory.

The representation of Mick (George MacKay) as a feisty, fast-paced – even unhinged – young man, provides an alternative answer to the question: Aston brings Davies home as a decoy for his brother. Mick’s speeches are delivered at an astonishingly rapid pace, with a pointed articulation giving the mundane tittle-tattle an ominous and violent flavor. This contrasts so starkly from Aston’s hesitant, economic utterances, bedecked with long silences, that the play is suddenly not about Davies, the would-be caretaker, but about the relationship between two discordant brothers.

With this changed perspective, Warchus’ Davis becomes a tool for exposing the brothers’ differences, taking on a function we might associate with Shakespeare’s Fool of provoking the protagonists into revealing their truths to the audience. Davis is represented as having stagnated, his haughty manner and miserable excuses unchanged from beginning to end. We feel that his final proposal of collecting his papers from Sidcup has no more intention than his previous suggestions.

But Davis’ obstinacy is the catalyst for change in Mick and Aston. Act two ends with a breathtaking speech from Daniel Mays, in which he explains the story behind Aston’s behaviour. The speech is beautifully understated, intimate and well-timed, during which the light fades gradually and unobtrusively to close the act with a spot on Aston, having finally managed to articulate the anger and bitterness of his situation. Likewise, Mick becomes able to tune into his own feelings of responsibility for his brother, appearing to unearth a deep-rooted love for Aston. These things together give the impression that Aston is able to expel Davis from the house thanks to a new unspoken bond between the two.

That being said, Warchus’ production did not go so far as to suggest permanent change. As the curtain falls the junk is still heaped up. The rain drives on outside the window. We are left uncertain as to whether this pattern will be repeated, and how long the brothers’ bond will last.

The Caretaker runs at The Old Vic until 14 May 2016.

Cressida Peever is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Brasenose College, Oxford. She writes non-fiction, fiction, poetry, drama, and everything in-between.