In the run-up to the tenth anniversary since Harold Pinter’s death, theatre audiences in the West of England have had the opportunity to see both early and late middle period work with The Caretaker at Bristol Old Vic and Betrayal at Salisbury Playhouse. The two young directors (Christopher Haydon and Jo Newman), have succeeded in refreshing these two repertoire favourites.
Past Pinter productions haunted me on the train journey to Salisbury for the Saturday matinee. Getting into conversation (I’m a chatty sort), with the lady seated beside me, not only were we both going to see Betrayal, but Wiz (as she called herself) was the widow of actor Philip Bond, who had originally played Pete in the 1963 stage adaptation of Pinter’s novel The Dwarfs at the New Arts Theatre, London
I experienced Jo Newman’s production from a number of different perspectives – teaching the play; a regard for Pinter’s own 1983 film adaptation, seeing a previous production at Bristol Old Vic in 2002 and more recently in April this year listening to a BBC wireless broadcast that paired a new recording of Betrayal with Olivia Coleman and Andrew Scott with Joan Bakewell’s play Keeping in Touch – a reply / riposte to the affair that Pinter drew so extensively upon in Betrayal.
Experiencing it again in the theatre Betrayal ranks as one of Pinter’s bleakest plays. From the excruciating awkwardness of the opening exchanges between Emma and Jerry in the pub after their affair has long since ended to the final scene and promise of the liaison to come, a feeling of desolation is never far away. Newman’s production imprints this by paying close attention to Pinter’s language and subtext but also through a novel use of scenography; here, the already frugal array of props is swiftly and ingeniously swallowed up by the floor and through the walls. These isolates and exposes the characters within a considerable empty stage space, pins attention down to what is being said, and more importantly to what is being concealed. The result is a feeling of intense melancholia that reminded me of seeing Patrick Marber’s Closer in 1997 (a play that owes a self-acknowledged debt to Betrayal) at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe and three years before that, in the same venue Landscape, directed by Pinter with Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton.
Betrayal at Salisbury was a fine production, although at the end an incident demonstrated the unpredictability of theatregoers in the regions. It also recalled a forthcoming article by Sinéad Mooney that will be appearing in the journal Contemporary Theatre Review early next year. In ‘“Demented Particulars”: Traces of Godot and the Provincial Theatre Archive’, Mooney identifies a flinty resistance in regional audiences to canonical works such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot after endorsement by metropolitan critics. So it was at Salisbury when I overheard one lady say, ‘Well, that was a lot of fuss over nothing’. This recalled the verdict that many, including Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington expressed after seeing the 1978 National Theatre production directed by Peter Hall. Since then Betrayal’s critical standing has grown, and Jo Newman’s production also moved the play several notches up my personal ‘top ten’ list of Pinter favourites.
By contrast, for me The Caretaker has always occupied a lower pegging. Part of this comes from it being set as one of my A ‘level texts for English, where enforced study, whatever admiration one might hold for a work is always eroded by the prospect of being examined on it. However, by the end of this production I underwent a Pauline conversion. While the idea of an all-black cast is not a new – the National Theatre’s 1981 production with Norman Beaton, Oscar James and Troy Foster precedes it – at Bristol, Patrice Naiambana’s Davies is given an African heritage while Ashton and Mick are black British Londoners. This gives fresh perspectives on Davies’s origins as a migrant as well as reasons for his shifting identity, such as his taking two names and familiar speeches about the urgency to obtain papers at Sidcup: ‘They prove who I am! I can’t move without them papers. They tell you who I am.’ However, it is Naiambana’s appropriation of Pinter’s language that it most revelatory. Whereas John Barber’s review of The National Theatre’s 1981 all black cast production demonstrated a casual racism in his remark, ‘Some of the verbal subtlety of Pinter’s chamber music is lost when the three characters’ idiom acquires Negro rhythms’, the Nigerian idiolect that Naiambana adopts rediscovers a new poetry in Davies’s speeches, and for me finally broke the spell of Donald Pleasance since his appearance in the first 1960 production, assured by the 1963 film and consolidated when he reprised the role onstage in 1991. I managed to get the opportunity to speak to Naiambana (being a chatty sort) in the bar afterwards and he explained about immediately recognizing the poetic qualities in Davies’s language early on in rehearsal and approaching the dialogue as if it were Shakespearian verse.
The Bristol production also took an experimental turn with the set. Instead of populating the stage with realistic clutter as past productions have done, many of the objects inside the room are suspended mid-air in a space without walls. This transforms one of Pinter’s most familiar rooms into a psychological domain that has special resonance for understanding Ashton’s state of mind – his need to collect and hoard objects that also cripple his dream of building a shed.
Seeing the two productions within a week of each other struck a connecting theme for me – the importance of loyalty. Relationships in both plays irrevocably change once loyalty is betrayed – while Jerry and Robert seemingly maintain their friendship, Robert’s knowledge of the affair oddly gives him a sense of power that allows him to cynically test Jerry’s capacity for deceit. In The Caretaker it is the moment when Davies tells Mick that his brother is ‘nutty’ that simultaneously proves Mick’s is loyal to Ashton and Davies’s betrayal.
In January The Pinter ‘Histories and Legacies’ team will all be attendance at Ian Rickson’s production of The Birthday Party in London. We hope to see you there, and if we haven’t yet met please introduce yourselves and just say, ‘Monty sent you’….