Following Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and his announced retirement from playwriting, Sheffield is currently playing host to a full-blown Pinter-fest of film screenings, lectures and much theatrical activity both big and small.
Unsurprisingly, the centrepiece of all this is a production of Pinter’s best-known play, The Caretaker, and given that this is part of a Pinter festival it’s also unsurprising that this is a reverent production rather than a re-interpretive one. The strength of the performances, and some beutifully subtle lighting, win through over any sense of over-familiarity in a tense and effective production.
The staging is subtle and simple – Pinter plays are not, after all, known for their extravagant stage furniture. The lighting design, however, was yet again a distinctive highlight at the Crucible, helping to make the open space of Sheffield’s main stage a more intimate, claustrophobic,expressive environment. Given the extent to which Pinter’s ideas have embedded itself into modern dramatic style, there’s always a risk that a modern audience will infer an ironic layer of meta-meaning into the seemingly unnatural, though thoroughly realistic combination of broken dialogue, repetition and tense pregnant pauses that are Pinter’s signature.
The opening minutes of the production, as the ethereal introductory music blends with the sound of running water and Nigel Harman’s Mick stalks the stage in silence, do indeed hint at the edgy surrealism which Pinter often dallied with. However the focus then moves directly in on the performers, and it feels like Pinter’s play, rather than, say, a Lynchian take on it. This is a wise move (much as I would love to see Lynch direct Pinter), as the low-key direction only emphasises the performances, which are terrific.
With the next Harry Potter film in post-production, David Bradley is free from his Finch duties to take on the role of Davies – or is it Jenkins? – the old homeless man with two names and bad shoes who intrudes into the lives of brothers Mick and Aston (Con O’Neill) as the titular Caretaker. Bradley plays the role with more comedy than menace,and Pinter’s affection for the character, despite his manipulative nature, has clearly extended to the production. That said, most of the comedy comes directly from the menacing power play between Davies and Aston, Aston and Mick, and Mick and Davies. Aston is the introverted but warm-hearted brother of the more entrepeneurial Mick, and it is Aston who invites Davies into Mick’s flat.
O’Neill portrayal of Aston is subtle, effective and distinguished, as a man who knows, deep down, that he is being manipulated by stronger people around him but is always concerned with maintaining his own personal dignity, his knowledge that, by his own standards, he is doing the right thing. Mick is far more brazen, although still subtly so, and is particularly electrifying due to Harman’s magnificent performance. Mick’s teddy-boy quiff is one of the few elements that places the action firmly within its original setting, as well as the casual racism which creates a semi-bond between Mick and Davies. He embodies the classic Pinteresque menace, the domestic thuggery which plays such an important part in his work, and Harman delivers the character perfectly.
It seems hard to imagine a more faithful reproduction of Pinter’s biggest play – a play that, despite its relative youth, is enough of a classic text to have been reinvented in most ways imaginable during its lifetime. As part of a wider Pinter retrospective this is exactly what is called for, and it has been executed with professionalism and conviction.