BBC Radio 4, 27 November 2010
When Pinter began his career as a dramatist in the late 1950s, his plays were reviled by critics: The Birthday Party came and went in London after the briefest of runs. Now they are recognized as acknowledged classics of modern British drama: the adjective 'Pinteresque' is characteristic of a particular style of communication, while the pause has become as important as dialogue in terms of dramaturgy.
In reviving Pinter's best-known play, the main challenge facing director Peter Kavanagh was to free it from its familiar associations and approach it afresh. To achieve this, he treated it like a symphony in three movements. The first movement began slowly, with the protagonists Davies (David Warner), Aston (Tony Bell) and Mick (Daniel Mays) verbally testing one another out, to see if they could get along. Their range of conversational subjects varied widely, encompassing directions round London's 'A' and 'B'-roads, Davies' proposed journey to Sidcup, and Mick's wanting to erect a shed. However what they said was less important than what was left unsaid: beneath the banalities lurked an atmosphere of mistrust, which could never be brought to the surface, as none of the characters wanted to appear weak. The dialogue assumed a brittle, quasi-Wildean quality, with the protagonists concealing their insecurities beneath a facade of talk.
In the second movement the mood changed; the protagonists talked more rapidly to one another as they became more comfortable in one another's company. For a while it seemed as if they would actually get along. Davies was offered the post of caretaker, while each new day brought the prospect of the shed being built ever nearer. However this ostensibly serene atmosphere was continually broken as Davies tried to play one brother off against another. In Warner's performance he turned out to be a ruthless manipulator - trying to be all things to all people in the hope of achieving personal self-advancement. Matters came to a head in a climax dominated by verbal repetitions, as the brothers ordered Davies to leave on the grounds that he stank. This might or might not have been true: what mattered most was that Davies had paid the price for taking advantage of them.
The production's final movement resembled an epiphany: Aston and Mick at last addressed one another as brothers, rather than rivals, while Davies' voice changed. Now he sounded plaintive, like a beggar asking passers-by for change. However the damage had been done: the production ended with Davies being reduced to incoherence, as he understood that his time was up and he had to leave.
By means of this tripartite structure, Kavanagh made The Caretaker seem less like a "comedy of menace," or an "absurd drama" (two phrases commonly used by critics to describe the play), and more a drama of human relationships, with three men trying and failing to co-exist in a confined space. There were no winners nor losers; rather the characters remained locked in their prison-houses of language, rendering them unable to communicate with one another. The only way they could 'communicate' was through manipulation, which was in itself concrete proof of their inability to form lasting relationships.
I found this production spellbinding, not only in its approach to characterization, but in the way it revealed Pinter's remarkable ear for modern speech-rhythms, with verbal cuts and thrusts followed by lengthy pauses as the characters tried desperately to sustain the conversation.