One of the concepts most frequently associated with the plays of Harold Pinter is menace. There is always the sense that behind the banality, even absurdity, something more than merely disomfiting is being hinted at. Something... something big and dark... is at stake.
In the playwright's first major commercial success, The Caretaker, the little whorls and eddies of power-play between the three characters constantly threaten to explode. Will slow, affectless Aston suddenly give us a fiery glimpse of what it was that led to his committal and electric shock treatment some time in the past? Will his wide-boy brother Mick follow through on his threatening behaviour and let fly? Will Davies, the shambling tramp brought home by Aston to share his semi-derelict, rubbish-filled attic, consolidate his position amid the brothers, whether with the knife he draws a couple of times or just with his fists? Even if it's not a matter of physical conflict, will there emerge a sharp and radical upset to the seedy nothingness in which all three shuffle along?
This is the dimension which I found almost entirely missing from Lindsay Posner's Bristol Old Vic revival. In all other respects, it's a prime production, but there's no impression of any such brooding prospect. At first I thought it was simply an absence of brute physicality, centred on Paul Ritter's Mick; Ritter is marvellous at distasteful oiliness and being disconcertingly off-beam, and this is what he relies on here, playing with Davies' mind rather than holding out any threat of violence, but it doesn't entirely fill the bill. Nor is this lack confined to Ritter. Terence Rigby is surely one of the great Davieses, vocally volcanic as he rattles around the room, shirtless beneath his waistcoat; yet there is never a sense that Davies commandeers the attic space for himself as he insinuates his way into Mick and Aston's arrangement. Mind you, there's not really a sense that it's theirs either.
I suspected also that I might be over-interpreting the lack of atmosphere caused by a sparse weekday matinee audience in which I was the youngest member by some twenty years. However, try as I might to imagine the production playing to a full and appreciative house, I could not conceive of it being fundamentally otherwise. What we see is terrific, but what makes Pinter's work so potent is what we don't see but intuit, that tip-of-the-iceberg feeling; here, you just don't feel there's that much beneath the surface.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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