“He wasn’t even listening,” a lonely man says when he realizes another has secretly slipped out the door while he was talking. This could be read as a matter-of-fact statement, but when it is spoken – rather, shouted – by Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker, it is a cry of anguish and despairing loneliness.
Harold Pinter’s first international hit, The Caretaker was first performed in 1960. A story of a homeless tramp and the two unusual brothers who house him in their London flat, the play is an unusual one of internal and external conflict that blurs the lines between comedy and tragedy. Directed by Christopher Morahan and starring a fantastic Pryce as the tramp, this production for Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse is an extremely entertaining and effective story that explores the aching loneliness behind each man’s motivations.
The tramp, who says his name is Davies – or could it be Jenkins? – is found and brought home by the well-dressed and soft-spoken Aston (Alan Cox, excellent), who lives in a cluttered room that happens to have an extra bed. (The dismal, effectively chaotic set is designed by Eileen Diss.) Aston’s sheets are covered in dust, as are the randomly placed objects that fill his room, but Jenkins doesn’t care. (His clothes, designed by Dany Everett, are not exactly spotless, either.) Soft-spoken and kindly at first, Aston offers Jenkins a job as caretaker of the building. But Jenkins soon learns that Aston has a brother, Mick (Alex Hassell, intimidating and menacing), who also offers him the same job. Aston and Mick are startlingly different; Mick appears to be quite violent and varies between attacking and coddling Jenkins. They also inspire different reactions from Jenkins, who quickly proves himself to be a less than gracious guest. The conflict that ensues is more internal than external, and its impact can be credited to the stellar performances by all three actors. Without the proper chemistry between these men, this play would not succeed.
Pryce excels as Davies, portraying him as a somewhat addled and baffled jester but offering glimpses of the desperate loneliness that haunts his past. While his ingratitude is exasperating to witness (he frequently complains of rain blowing on his head and when Astor gifts him with a new pair of shoes, he refuses them, saying they do not fit properly), one can wager a guess as to why he possesses such bristling defenses. He is also a skilled comedian, and the careful attention he gives to removing and folding his splattered, stained, and wrinkled pants is extremely amusing to witness.
Cox gives a quiet dignity to Aston, who rarely speaks, except about the shed he hopes to build in the backyard. The loneliness of this man is palpable, and one can see why he fills his apartment with random objects that he does not use. Cox excels in his second-act monologue about the lobotomy that was forced on him as a teenager. Staring ahead and speaking in a quiet monotone, while Con Grenfell’s lighting effectively isolates and highlights him, the scene is devastating and beautiful. As Mick, Hassell depicts a compelling and mysterious man who alternately rages about the injustices his brother has forced him through as well as interior decorating. His energy is unpredictable and frightening and his scornful way of speaking is extremely amusing. (I had trouble stopping my laughter after he contemptuously invited Davies to his apartment to “listen to some Tchaikovsky.” )
While The Caretaker was first performed in 1960, its themes rang very true with current culture. Davies’ desire and need for a job is nothing new to the disenfranchised youth of Occupy Wall Street. Astor and Mick’s plans of what they could do with the apartment and the backyard are hopeful, but it is clear that neither of them will accomplish what they say they will. But even more than the economic impact of the show, the need for human connection and acknowledgement is timeless and true, evidenced by Davies’ anguished cry of, “He wasn’t even listening.” But when Jonathan Pryce is uttering that cry, he can rest assured that the audience is.