by Harold Pinter
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
22 October – 15 November 2008
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Mick – Eugene O'Hare
Aston – Robert Hastie
Davies – Tam Dean Burn
Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Lighting Designer – Tina MacHugh
Sound Designer – Matilda Brown
CSM – Claire Semple
DSM – Steven Muckersie
Production Manager – Chris McDougall
Company Manager / Casting – Jackie Muir
The Scotsman, 14 October 2008
Harold Pinter's great play of broken dreams, The Caretaker, is strangely relevant to the economic crisis, director Phillip Breen tells Mark Brown
A caretaker for troubled times
When I meet Phillip Breen – who is staging the Citizens Theatre's forthcoming production of Nobel laureate Harold Pinter's acclaimed early play The Caretaker – at the Gorbals playhouse, he is in a contemplative mood. "Pinter says he wrote the play because he was very down-at-heel and felt an affinity with the character of the vagrant. I certainly know how he feels," he says.
Breen is referring to the eponymous character of Davies, the homeless old man who becomes caretaker to brothers Mick and Aston. Pinter, pictured right, based the drama upon a real-life situation of cohabiting brothers of his acquaintance who had, for a short time, taken in a homeless man. The playwright had spoken with the destitute man on a number of occasions, and felt his plight keenly.
"Pinter wrote The Caretaker after The Birthday Party," Breen comments, "a play which was absolutely derided (by critics and audiences]. It closed after six performances, and was considered to be an enormous failure.
"He was living in poverty, in rented rooms, with his new wife, Vivien Merchant, and with his baby son, Daniel, at his feet. That's what the theatre profession does to a lot of people, it infantilises them, it denigrates the traditional male role of the breadwinner, the provider and protector. This was something, coming from quite a traditional Jewish family in the east end of London, Pinter was very concerned about."
The Caretaker is, says the director, a play "about destitution, the insecurity of one's living space and pipe dreams of security". Breen finds it at least as relevant in 2008 as it was when it was first staged (at the Arts Theatre, London) in 1960. The economic crisis that is currently crashing around us makes the precariousness of the characters' lives seem extremely pertinent.
"It's very interesting doing this play now. We're not talking about the theme in the abstract any more. Ten years ago, with Mick's aspirations for his rundown Chiswick apartment (which he wants to turn into a flash penthouse], there would have been a sense that he was ahead of his time, and almost a sense that he's going to be all right. Now, of course, all that stuff feels very different, it feels like pipe dreams."
Breen believes that Pinter is "our most realistic playwright". It's an interesting, some would say strange, opinion. The widely held view of Pinter's plays – particularly earlier ones such as The Caretaker and The Homecoming – is that they owe a great debt to the abstract, assiduously non-naturalistic theatre of Pinter's great friend and mentor Samuel Beckett. Pinter's dialogues are uncertain, ambiguous, and given to sudden, erratic shifts. Can this really be what the director means by "realistic"?
"It's interesting to think of Pinter at the age of 29, when he wrote The Caretaker. The tradition he came from was as an actor in repertory theatre, performing in plays by people like Ibsen and Chekhov, dramas that we absolutely without question considered to be 'naturalistic plays'.
"The characters come on and they talk to each other, they can really talk. They seem to know themselves. They're aware of their motives, and they seem to be able to fully explain themselves. My experience with Pinter is that conversation is much more difficult than that. He sees conversation as a constant stratagem to cover nakedness. In that sense, his characters are like real human beings. They are evasive, they don't wish to be known."
Ambiguity, the director insists, is realism. Indeed, he believes, the ambiguities and uncertainties of a play such as The Caretaker go back much further than 20th-century modernism. "I don't think Pinter's any more ambiguous than Shakespeare, for example. One of the greatest stage characters ever committed to paper was Iago (from Shakespeare's Othello], and we never find out what motivates him. It's been a subject for reams of academic discourse."
Breen – who has in recent years directed Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman and Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for the Citz – believes that Pinter falls on the right side of a very clear divide in theatre writing. "Good writing finds a form for something unsayable, and ordinary writing finds a form (for] something that's eminently sayable. There are many plays in which characters seem to be able to explain themselves, and there is a lack of ambiguity. But, as a director, they're not plays that attract me so much."
Like most people with an interest in Pinter's theatre, the director is fascinated by how the English playwright relates to Beckett's dramas. "There are a number of interesting crossovers between Beckett and Pinter. I think Pinter does everything that Beckett does on a philosophical level, but Pinter's great genius as a theatre writer is that he takes it from the end of the world to the end of the pier. He takes it from the realm of the abstract and the poetical, and roots it in the popular drama of the time."
One might argue that Beckett – who loved vaudeville and early screen comedies – achieved a similar combination of elements in his work.
However, says Breen, "Beckett's work is on a big, more abstract political scale. Pinter's is so ultra, ultra specific that such a thing as a pair of shoes becomes not only a power paradigm, in terms of the play, but also a fascinating political paradigm as well [a reference to the power struggle over a pair of shoes offered to Davies in The Caretaker]."
Pinter, like Beckett, enjoys playing with the theatrical context in which his work is presented. "It's a private concern of mine," says Breen, "to try to match plays to their environments." The ostensibly domestic nature of Pinter's plays has led to a trend of presenting them in studio theatres. However, says Breen, there's something special about playing the dramas on a grand proscenium arch stage, such as in the Citz's main auditorium.
"I love the auditorium here, I love the Citizens' Theatre. It gives me great pleasure to see it come alive with plays which are written for theatres like this. It's part of the game Pinter's playing. He creates a uniquely theatrical experience, and to experience it in the Citz's auditorium, with its seedy grandeur, is great."
There's nothing seedy, but there is plenty of grandeur in the cast Breen has secured for his production. Eugene O'Hare, who recently understudied to Kevin Spacey in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway, will play Mick, with sometime Royal Shakespeare Company actor Robert Hastie as his mentally ill brother Aston.
Best known to Citz audiences is Tam Dean Burn, the accomplished Scottish actor who will play the title role. "Tam brings something very fresh and irreverent to the role of Davies", observes Breen, "but he loses none of the pathos and humanity."
If Breen's previous Citz productions are any guide, we can expect plenty of pathos, humanity and insight from his presentation of this modern classic.
The Sunday Herald
by Mark Brown
We think we know the early plays of Harold Pinter, particularly the classic works from from the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as
The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker and
The Homecoming. British Theatre tends to treat Pinter (indeed all authors of accepted theatrical
'classics') with a certain reverence; few directors relocate the plays in place or time. It is as though Britain's theatre directors had long since decided that there are surprises enough in the non-sequiturs and erratic turns in behaviour of Pinter's characters without any fancy continental reinterpretation.
Although the brilliantly realised, assiduously detailed set [by Max Jones] for The Caretaker at the Citz (the wrecked and cluttered room of the mentally distressed Aston) is quintessential British Pinter, the beauty of director Phillip Breen's production is that he has the intelligence and confidence to offer his own distinctive interpretation of the play. In particular, Breen (who is guest directing at the Gorbals playhouse for the third time in recent years) draws purposefully on the darkly comic strand of the piece.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Eugene O'Hare's fabulous playing of Mick, brother of Aston and owner of the crumbling London House to which Aston has brought back the aging down and out Davies. From the moment the unpredictable Mick meets the old man – with physical violence and a disorientating and repetitive series of quick fire questions – he speaks with faux middle class pretentiousness that gives him the air of a bleak Tony Hancock.
This malignant music hall element contrasts powerfully with Robert Hastie's tightly controlled and poignant performance as Aston. Subdued by the electroshock treatment he has received in a mental institution, he appears deceptively vulnerable to the inveigling and conniving and desperate Davies.
At the pinnacle of the triangle is Davies. His pathos and poverty on one hand and his rancid racist bigotry on the other, make him by turns sympathetic and detestable. Tam Dean Burn plays the title role with a characteristic combination of vigour and subtlety. With every word he speaks, one feels the impossibility of the dreams of the vagrant: if Aston is never going to build his toolshed and Mick is never going to turn the property in to a penthouse, Davies for sure is never going to get to Sidcup to collect the much vaunted, almost certainly fictional references that would supposedly seal his job as caretaker.
The tempo of the production undulates perfectly with the rhythms of Pinter's text, and Tina MacHugh's excellent lighting responds accordingly. This faithful yet imaginative presentation of The Caretaker confirms Breen's occasional offerings at the Citz as among the theatre's best work over the past five years.
by Robert Dawson Scott
Three men in one room: Davies, the gentleman of the road; Aston who has taken him in in an apparently random act of kindness; and Mick, Aston’s brother. It may not sound much, but if you are Harold Pinter, it is a whole world.
Much is made, rightly, of Pinter’s language, but Max Jones’s junk-filled set, complete in every 1950s detail, is the first thing that strikes you. Most of the Citizens’ lofty proscenium has been closed off so that the playing area really has the same volume as a grubby attic flat. And there is a moment that makes a nonsense of those who would distinguish 'visual theatre' from any other kind.
As the lights come up after the interval Davies is discovered sitting on the only chair, wearing the scarlet smoking jacket that Aston has picked up for him in a junk shop and smoking, for all the world like Noël Coward.
Without a word being said, it is clear that his hubris is about to come crashing around his ears. And it says a lot for the confidence of this production that, at this point, Mick is lying on his back, from which position he goes on to deliver in its entirety the famous speech about how he is going to redecorate the flat.
Eugene O’Hare, pugnacious, vain, somewhere between Marlon Brando and Alan Bates, is an excellent Mick, his jaunty banter at the start only thinly masking the menace that is given full rein in the final scene. Robert Hastie’s Aston is not quite absent enough in the early stages, though he makes the speech about his electro-convulsive shock therapy tell.
Tam Dean Burn, even with an unaccustomed wig and an East End accent, is in prize-winning form as Davies, all angles and jagged movements, cringing one moment but absurdly on his dignity the next.
That means that they are often laugh-out-loud funny as well as threatening. And the scene in which Mick grabs Davies’s bag from Aston and they snatch it to and fro could come straight out of the music hall.
Quality stuff all round.
by Mark Fisher
A few months ago, the talk was all about white, working-class males feeling alienated in a multicultural society. Whatever the merits of that analysis, Harold Pinter was on the case first, nearly 50 years ago. In Davies, a tramp who suffers the double-edged hospitality of two brothers, the playwright offers us a character whose fortunes are never so low that he can't take a pop at the neighbourhood 'blacks'. This derelict, who scarcely has a pair of shoes to call his own, has too much pride ever to think himself on the bottom of the ladder.
His new acquaintances are little better. Whether it's the mild-mannered Aston, who brings Davies back to his dilapidated apartment, or the menacing Mick, the men cling to the idea that they have a meaningful place in society. As we head towards recession, it is chilling to be reminded that it is work that provides us with that meaning. The three men are without employment, yet all claim to have some offer of a job, some contact to meet, some business to be undertaken, to make sense of their lives.
Phillip Breen's careful production draws us quietly into this sad portrait of male loneliness. Tam Dean Burn is a twitchy Davies, in contrast to Robert Hastie's mesmerisingly still Aston, as much a symbol of 1950s British reserve as a product of electric shock therapy. As Mick, Eugene O'Hare is a warped music-hall act in a Joe Orton leather jacket, undermining Davies with double-talking repartee, but hiding behind no less of a front. The Caretaker retains not only its elliptical strangeness but also its ability to resonate with the times.
by Neil Cooper
As the credit crunch causes the housing market to crash into des-res rubble, one wonders whatever became of the grotty little bedsit in Harold Pinter's 1959 assault on a place called home at the fag-end of post-war austerity Britain?
Was it occupied by slumming-it YBAs before being snapped up by buy-to-let Blairite slum-lords making a killing from urban renewal? Only upwardly mobile Mick spots the potential. From his first silent perusal of the room, he and his troubled brother Aston negotiate their way through its bricks and mortar on some time-share shift system, one day-dreaming gentrification, the other more mundanely set on building a shed. When Aston invites down-and-out Davies into their abode, the cuckoo in the nest gets well and truly settled.
There's something mischievously arch about Phillip Breen's main-stage production, which recalls every absurdist sit-com from Steptoe and Son right through to the Mighty Boosh. The latter comes primarily through Eugene O'Hare's Mick, here a studied matinee-idol spiv. In contrast, Robert Hastie's Aston is more assured and not obviously unstable. Flitting between the two, Tam Dean Burn's Davies is part Alf Garnett, part Tony Hancock and possibly part Godot, seduced by the comforts of a warm bed en route to a Sidcup wasteland where he'll quite literally find himself.
Despite such near neighbours, this isn't slapstick. Rather, there's an all-pervading stillness punctuated by fierce flashpoints. Pinter's debt to Waiting For Godot is made explicit, both by Davies' desire for a decent pair of shoes and the hat-referencing routine with Davies' bag. In the end, though, in The Caretaker's pre-Shelter milieu, he's evicted as rudely as any other squatter in a powerfully intricate and broodingly intense affair.
by Steve Cramer
Pinter’s tale of a power struggle between three men, one destitute, one marginalised by mental health issues and one seeming to exist at the twilight edge of bourgeois respectability, assumes a new power in the current economic climate. When down-and-out Davies (Tam Dean Burn) inveigles himself into the decrepit, detritus-strewn room of Aston (Robert Hastie), a man recovering from ECT, the latter’s seedy businessman brother (Eugene O’Hare) takes an interest, sparking an omega-male psychological brawl.
In front of Max Jones’ grimly detailed bedsit set, Breen’s production points outwards at a society overloaded with aspiration and bereft of the means of achieving satisfaction on either a spiritual or material level. Some tremendous physical business from Burns’ tramp combine nicely with O’Hare’s droll, deadpan humour, while Hastie’s singular monologue about his experience of a barbaric mental institution is delivered with chilling, downbeat precision. Each character cites ambitions, be they as modest as the building of a shed or the attaining of a pair of comfy shoes, which will never be realised, all against a background of emotional and fiscal impoverishment. Yet there’s endless humour to be found among the pathos, with all three actors bringing a Hancock-like wit to the delivery of dialogue that constantly undermines the characters’ pretensions. Most of all, the aching loneliness of these unobserved lives comes across underneath the surface aggression.
The Daily Telegraph
by Mark Brown
It is testament to the continued regard for the plays of Harold Pinter's early period that, as his No Man's Land (1975) enjoys a run at the Duke of York's in London, Glasgow's Citizens Theatre is presenting one of the Nobel laureate's very earliest works.
Guest director Phillip Breen makes a successful return to Clydeside with a deceptive presentation of The Caretaker, a piece first staged in 1960.
At the outset, Breen's production looks like a conventional take on a well-known play. Max Jones's set, in particular, depicts the cluttered, semi-derelict room of Aston (psychologically distressed brother of the house's owner, Mick) with a hyper-real attention to detail which is very much the British way of doing Pinter.
However, there is, to borrow a phrase from Pinter himself, a 'weasel under the cocktail cabinet'. Breen draws upon the music-hall comedy aspect in the play to heighten both the pathos and the menace in the strained triangle between Aston, Mick and the old down-and-out Davies. The struggle over a bag which Aston has given to Davies – which involves the item being part-snatched, part-passed from one man to the next – is pure slapstick.
Eugene O'Hare's portrayal of Mick is satisfyingly erratic, physical and pretentious, like a sinister Tony Hancock. Robert Hastie's Aston is beautifully measured, all the better to give the play its killer punch, while excellent Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn gives a memorably intense performance as the desperate (and by turns sympathetic and loathsome) drifter Davies.
by Gareth Vile
By bringing out the humour within Pinter’s absurdist dialogues, and emphasising the disconnection between the characters through a range of mannered English accents, Phillip Breen conjures a surreal drama that retains pathos while remaining entertaining.
Tam Dean Burn excels as the vagrant Davies, while Eugene O’Hare’s Mick is consistently hilarious, even if he fails to connect with the character’s menacing depths.
Designer Max Jones captures the seedy oppression through a set that reduces the Citizen’s expansive stage into a narrow, claustrophobic bedsit. Caught up in Aston’s collection of junk, three men shift alliances and battle for dominance. The absence of intimacy and sympathy is clear in Pinter’s truncated, lurching prose and structure - Hastie’s hesitancy, Dean Burn’s energy and O’Hare’s incongruous refinement bounce and spark off each other, pushing forward the action with a jerky, uncomfortable ferocity.
Throughout the first act, Breen stresses the comedy – Davies’ racism, Mick’s threats and Aston’s distant dreaminess are played for laughs. As the inevitable conflict shapes itself, Tam Dean Burn lends Davies a tragic grandeur. The final image of Davies begging is resonant and startling, recasting the earlier laughter as bleakly ironic and re-establishing The Caretaker’s brutal mood.
The three strong performances and evocative set allow Breen to rediscover Pinter as a dark humorist with a warm humanism. Aston’s speech about his mental illness reveals an unexpected compassion, while his brother Mick is laughable rather than deadly. This is a triumphant and direct interpretation of an author too often reduced to pause and cliche.
Eugene O'Hare as Mick, Tam Dean Burn as Davies. Photo © Pete Le May
Eugene O'Hare as Mick. Photo © Pete Le May
Robert Hastie as Aston. Photo © Pete Le May
Eugene O'Hare as Mick. Photo © Pete Le May
Tam Dean Burn as Davies, Robert Hastie as Aston. Photo © Pete Le May
Eugene O'Hare as Mick, Tam Dean Burn as Davies. Photo © Pete Le May
Tam Dean Burn as Davies. Photo © Pete Le May
Eugene O'Hare as Mick. Photo © Pete Le May
Robert Hastie as Aston, Tam Dean Burn as Davies. Photo © Pete Le May
Set by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
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