Preview: The Caretaker at the Southern Theatre

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From the April 26, 2012 edition

In 1960, a three-character play “The Caretaker” became the first commercial success of a young British playwright named Harold Pinter. In it, Aston, a brain-damaged man, lends a room to Davies, a grizzled homeless guy, in the rundown house that Aston shares with his bullying younger brother, Mick.

In 1980, a young Welsh actor named Jonathan Pryce played Mick in a celebrated production of the play filmed for BBC-TV, then staged at Britain’s National Theatre. Ever since, Pryce has nursed the ambition to play Davies, “a multilayered, multifaceted character. He represents … so many different aspects of the human condition.

“There’s no set rules to how you play him,” Pryce said in a phone interview. “The character Davies reacts in the moment and acts in the moment, and you can do that as an actor. He’s all things to all men. He’s very exciting to play and can be quite depressing to play.”

For audiences, however, “It’s hugely entertaining,” said Pryce, who starred in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and originated the role of The Engineer in “Miss Saigon.” “There’s a lot of laughter there and, classically, the laughter offsets and reinforces the darker sides of the play. It’s a chance for an audience to have an entertaining time but also feel huge compassion for those three displaced and dysfunctional characters they see on stage.”

Famously reticent about revealing too much about his characters, Pinter, who died in 2008, encouraged actors to create their own back stories.

“The one defining thing for me about Davies is that he refers to having ‘had a peep’ inside a mental institution, as I did myself in 1958 when I was 11,” Pryce said.

Following a nervous breakdown, Pryce’s father was given the same shock treatment that Aston describes in the play.

“I’m honoring that time of my father and that time of me as a child,” Pryce said. “It’s good to get it out of my system.”

Five decades on, “The Caretaker” remains relevant, Pryce said.

“The core issues of the play, the desire and need for people to have a refuge, have a home, to be loved, they haven’t gone away.”