Baffled by Pinter? You won’t be after Christopher Morahan’s revival of “The Caretaker.” Unfortunately, patient lucidity turns out to be antithetical to this murky and marvelous play’s needs. Despite a singular performance from Jonathan Pryce in the title role and acting of supreme dignity from Peter McDonald, the production is perilously short on tension.
Part of Pinter’s revolutionary dramaturgy in his 1960 breakthrough hit was to bin a traditional plot of developing action. Instead, he used highly stylized poetic language to play elaborate power and status games between feckless tramp Davies (Pryce) and brothers Mick (Sam Spruell) and Aston (Peter McDonald), who take him in.
To varying degrees, all three characters use deceit to manipulate one another. It’s that which charges up Mick’s attack on Davies toward the end of the play where he says he can’t take anything the latter says at face value. Bizarrely, taking the text at face value is this production’s overriding feature.
It’s possible that the play, which comes to London after a successful run at Liverpool’s Everyman Theater, has suffered in transfer. Spruell has replaced an unavailable Tom Brooke and it’s his character who is the major victim of the literal approach. Mick may well be psychopathic and Spruell duly displays sudden flashes of contradiction and rage when required. But we neither see nor sense where the anger is coming from because the rest of his performance is so peculiarly benign.
Near the beginning, via Colin Grenfell’s lighting of the translucent back wall, Morahan shows Mick prowling and brooding in a corridor. This not only over-emphasizes Mick’s potential for malice aforethought, it removes the need for the actor to suggest it in the scenes themselves.
That resulting loss of menacing subtext is novel, but it’s a directorial decision that comes at considerable cost. What’s missing until far too late in the proceedings is any sense of sustained resentment or danger to keep the others — and the audience — on their toes. And without fear and foreboding ricocheting between the characters, the other two actors appear almost in isolation.
Quivering with suspicion, Pryce’s disheveled, Welsh-accented Davies is a comic opportunist. The ease with which his character tosses off an upper-class accent for effect points to an unusually complex backstory. And Pryce’s vast physical repertoire of stabbing hand gestures, shrugs, slumps and winks with which to punctuate his thoughts create a richly surprising performance. But it remains a “performance” because Morahan hasn’t sufficiently woven him into the dramatic texture.
By contrast, McDonald’s becalmed, puzzled Aston, the gentler brother haunted by memories of his time in a mental institution, is utterly embedded in the drama. His chin slightly lifted, he unobtrusively turns Aston’s meekness into quiet defiance. His story of receiving electric shock treatment is heartbreaking because McDonald rejects sentimentality and instead fills the speech with hope.
Pinter’s plays work best when directors create an almost suffocating atmosphere that can engulf you like dry ice. But the effect created on Morahan’s brightly lit stage is one of solipsism — three isolated character studies. Even if that’s Morahan’s ultimate interpretation of “The Caretaker,” the drama only really takes off as a taut, threeway tug-of-war. Sadly, these proceedings are too slack.