THE CARETAKER at Bristol Old Vic

So, we wondered, with a black cast and the central character, Davies, being a racist, how will it work with all the references to ‘blacks’? To be clear, work it did and by a deft touch that, arguably, was director, Christopher Haydon’s, ace move in drawing from Patrice Naiambana an undoubtedly memorable performance.  The first time he refers to ‘them Blacks’ he does so with a glint of irony. This clever reading sets up the rest of the references as implicitly ironic even when delivered with a bellyful of ire. By a strange magic it also helps legitimize (for the play) the Caribbean demotic that separates him from the other characters, adding to the sense of ‘outsider’ trying to get in.

Davies, the survivor, the victim – of shoes, the weather, Poles, Greeks, blacks, monks, authority – has little except his rights and his dignity.  Again the irony of that first use sets up the theme of social positioning, the struggle for mastery that lies at the heart of the play. He is, by implication, better than ‘them Blacks’; whatever he lacks materially he nonetheless has that basic human motivation not to be bottom of the pile. Mr Naiambana has grasped the importance of repetition and silence in Pinter; neither are mere devices, both concern the struggle for dominance and vary in their effect according to the use they are put to by the speaker. Silence can be to ignore or impose on the one hand or flounder and signal defeat on the other.  Likewise repetition can suggest your listener is a dimwit or be an imposition of will or again a desperate attempt to assert personhood. Physically adept, Mr Naiambana shows us a Davies with a past; a swagger of youth here an aspiration to elegance there and always the slump into defeat and self deluded excuse.

David Judge as Mick is a petty, menacing bully, strutting, black leathered and fastidious in his suburban desmene.  The (slight) reservation one has with this Mick is that he tends to overplay his hand. We know he is a threatening presence who more than either of the other characters builds the air of menace that partly makes up what we are wont to call ‘Pinteresque’. Yet, as perhaps with any art form, one’s best effects are best effected sparingly; the alternate application of tension and release being generally more effective than constant hammering – there are no surprises when the menace is not allowed to simmer; there are less traps to spring. What he does he does well, only for my money does too much.

Aston (Jonathan Livingstone) is difficult: present on stage though often absent mentally, a victim of misguided ‘therapy’ which has hollowed out his personality leaving him vacant and quiescent, seemingly benign but when push comes to shove no less capable of asserting himself in the atavistic struggle than homeless, stateless Davies. This Aston is sensitively done.

This is, by any measure, an intelligent, satisfying and enjoyable reworking of Pinter. Pinter without the ‘esque’ perhaps, yet in Mr Naiambana one in which the portrayal of an iconic character will stand as measure for those that follow.

To thus take Pinter out of his West/East London linguistic idiom and make it work is a theatrical achievement and leaves us wondering what other revelatory excursions might be possible.   ★★★★☆    Graham Wyles   15th September 2017