Audiences accustomed to thinking of a Pinteresque evening as family members getting at each other's throats, unleashing hidden spite and anger, may be surprised by the current Theatre Royal Bath Productions incarnation of The Caretaker. The play speaks in quieter tones, its muted pitch matched by the stage setting, in which grays and browns, ochres and tarnished beiges predominate. That isn't to say that there's no slow-burning rage or testosterone in evidence. In Harold Pinter's work, emotional violence is always only a note away; it may emerge suddenly, in what you may otherwise see as a casual conversation, or idle joking. A fatal mistake, as this play illustrates.
You could call it a tragicomedy of mistaken identities. Solitary Aston has a spare bed in his cluttered flat. More a storage room than a home, it's filled with wood, vases and jugs, dirty mattresses and empty picture frames. Into this mess, Aston brings Davies, a man recently out of a job and homeless. It's part of the play's charm that we never know who Davies really is—or anyone else, for that matter. To Aston, he's an unlikely father figure. Dirty, stinky, and disheveled, he can be prudish and finicky (the play in fact suggests that his downgraded state and prudery are inversely connected, a way of holding onto a dignity that's slipping away). Bigger than life, Davies also cuts a pathetic figure: an Archie Bunker type, grumbling about Asians and "blackies," about Greeks and Poles—"all them aliens," exposing his bigotry (he won't admit he's Welsh). Davies, brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce, has a touch of Shakespeare's noble tyrants. He's sly in his madness, wise in his foolishness, and thoroughly idiosyncratic. Pryce endows him with a rich bag of ticks, so that we watch Davies's hands move in one direction, his body contorting in another, revealing an unquiet, addled mind.
The mind's disquiet is what unites the landlord and the unlikely tenant. Aston, played by Alan Cox, seems an ordinary everyman, but he hoards tools he finds about town, and talks endlessly about fixing up the place, yet can't mend a simple toaster. Later, we learn of Aston's stay in a mental asylum. By then, this fact seems to be an aside, or Pinter's reaching for empathy, in what is otherwise a raw and profoundly sad play, for all its slapstick and wisecracks. Many of these derive from the comedy of mixed registers—mixing low and high language and culture—as in the scene when Aston's younger brother, Mick, a slick, somewhat thuggish type played to a near-perfect pitch by Alex Hassell (I couldn't help thinking of the sociopathic Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene's The Brighton Rock) tells Davies he should "come over for a drink sometime," and "to listen to some Tchaikovsky" (this only after he nearly choked Davies to death earlier, coming upon him in his brother's room). Tchaikovsky is a placeholder for Mick's lower-middle-class pretensions, as are the interior decorating terms, which he tries out on Davies.
The play wouldn't be canonical Pinter if it weren't also about power. Much of its tension derives from a close-knit triangulation: a human triangle requires that one person be at the top, with two at the base. This basic hierarchy gets reshuffled throughout the play, as Aston, and particularly Davies and Mick, vie for who gets to dictate the shots. This dynamic is reflected in the play formally, almost as a musical refrain: the three actors bounce the same phrases, gestures and motifs off each other, to varying effects. Davies first uses Aston's stay in a mental asylum to undermine him, feeling confident in Mick's backing him up; but when Mick turns on him, Davies plies the very asylum story for sympathy, desperate not to lose his place as a dominant figure, or more practically, not to be turned out to the streets.
In Pinter's universe, human clusters (families or not) emerge as codependent and co-destructive forces—individuals as bundles of impulses and needs. With a somewhat Darwinist slant, their internal lives seem to be centered around getting what they want, and the savage frustrations of not always succeeding.
Whereas the more iconic of Pinter's plays, particularly No Man's Land and Homecoming, explode with bluster, The Caretaker is more like a storm in a teacup. It may not be as terrifying, or hold up its own as consequently as the more realized plays, but it nevertheless displays the formal and the thematic elements that have made Pinter's art and vision so vital.
The Caretaker runs through June 17 at the BAM Harvey Theater.