Matthew Warchus’s latest artistic endeavour at the Old Vic is an absolute triumph, keenly expressing Pinter’s vision in The Caretaker: the crisis of identity in the gloomy context of modern living.
The first striking aspect of the production is on the stage: a giant slanted roof, grim and imposing, which completely obscures the view. When the performance begins this roof moves away to reveal a supremely cluttered attic space: a reflection of the character of the occupant, Aston (Daniel Mays), who is as broken as the discarded junk around him. Aston has saved Davies (Timothy Spall) from a fight and taken him in, motivated by a desire for companionship since he finds it difficult to integrate into broader society. May’s portrayal of Aston is brilliantly accomplished, he often keeps himself in the corner of the room, sitting hunched over on the bed with his feet pointing inward, engaged in a Sisyphean task: attempting to fix damaged appliances that come from a never-ending heap. His presence on stage is captivating: he is the complete picture of an introvert, but it is clear that his awkwardness conceals a deep agony.
Aston has made a grave mistake in picking out Davies as a companion, who takes up residence in the attic like an infection. If identity is defined by a person’s possessions then Davies is a spectre, existing with the clothes on his back and little else. His papers in Sidcup that prove his identity (the ones he constantly proclaims he will retrieve) might as well be on the other side of the world: as Warchus aptly notes “A journey to Sidcup is as unlikely as Godot turning up.” Spall uses his role in Harry Potter to his advantage, transplanting the rodent-like mannerisms of Peter Pettigrew to the stage. Davies is shifty, oscillating between two demeanours: at one moment grovelling and sycophantic to promote his interests, and at another moment incredibly narcissistic, parading around in a smoking jacket with a bloated sense of self-importance. The costume fails to disguise the reality that he is just a pathetic old fool.
The overarching theme of the play is futility. Mick (George Mackay) has unrealistic expectations for the property, styling himself as a hotshot developer, which could not be further from the truth. Davies fancies himself as caretaker, but such a career is not fulfilled. Aston proclaims that he will build a shed in the garden, but this being accomplished becomes increasingly unlikely. Aston’s pain comes from his experience of institutional malevolence: the monologue about his electro-shock treatment is heartfelt and moving. May is careful to not fill his performance with rage, instead conveying a sense of anger that simmers away, finding no easy outlet.
Rain is a constant annoyance, it invades the stage through the ceiling, dripping into a suspended bucket and marking the slow passage of time. The house is nothing but a thin membrane between humanity and the unforgiving elements; things fall into decay and there is little that can be done to prevent this. This despairing atmosphere is punctuated with moments of bizarre comedy. For instance, there is a furious Beckettian exchange of Davies’ bag, and Mick torments Davies with the ‘electrolux’ vacuum in the dark. However, this is a sinister sort of comedy, deliberately failing to alleviate the mood. Warchus has encapsulated the desolation of The Caretaker in a perfect balance of humour and misery: it is simultaneously brilliant and saddening to watch.