When Pinter met Hodge [long pause] ...

... the result was a part for the actor in the 40th-anniversary revival of 'The Caretaker'. Heather Neill meets the man destined to play Aston
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The Independent Online

One day in London in the summer of 1998, Harold Pinter spoke to Douglas Hodge in a dressing room at the Donmar Warehouse: "You've got to play Aston sometime," he said, without preamble. They were appearing together in The Collection, one of three Pinter plays in a triple bill. Hodge says now; "I thought, 'Why? I wonder what I've just done.'"

One day in London in the summer of 1998, Harold Pinter spoke to Douglas Hodge in a dressing room at the Donmar Warehouse: "You've got to play Aston sometime," he said, without preamble. They were appearing together in The Collection, one of three Pinter plays in a triple bill. Hodge says now; "I thought, 'Why? I wonder what I've just done.'"

Energetic, funny, sporty - even a glamorous figure after his television successes including Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch - Hodge is not an obvious choice for the slow, brain-damaged Aston in The Caretaker. But Patrick Marber, director of the present production, also saw the necessary quality, and Hodge finds himself as one third of a starry cast, with Michael Gambon playing the tramp Davies, and Rupert Graves as Aston's sinister brother Mick. Perhaps Marber spotted what Hodge describes as the "unhurried, quiet authority" in the "damaged goods" that make up Aston, who takes in Davies and causes complicated power-play between him and the two brothers.

Douglas Hodge is no stranger either to Pinter - this is his eighth production - or to the character. He learnt Aston's pivotal "pincer" speech, describing his electric-shock treatment when he was 16. He auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, having learned a chunk of Richard II and this harrowing modern piece. In the event, impersonations of the likes of Elvis and Harold Wilson got him in instead, and he first spoke the speech in public on the stage of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford during the pre-London run last month.

Talking in the theatre bar at Guildford, Hodge goes into loud mock gossip about Gambon, as the rest of the cast wander past on their way backstage: Gambon bulky with long, snowy locks, Graves compact and with his dark hair greased back. "There is something of the gypsy in Rupert," observes Hodge, "which is just right. He's like that bloke who used to stand on your dodgem." One senses a small male club made up of cast and director, with occasional visits from the author when, according to Hodge, despite his long acquaintance with Pinter, "there is a massive air of trepidation. It's like showing your work to the boss, but then we calm down and realise he's an ally. He confirms your thinking".

Written in late 1959 and first staged in 1960, the year Hodge was born, The Caretaker was Pinter's first success and ran in London for a year. This 40th anniversary production also marks the author's 70th birthday. The idea for the play was triggered by other residents in the Chiswick house where he then lived in two rooms with his first wife and toddler son. A reticent man who lived on the floor below took in a homeless tramp whom Pinter bumped into on the stairs. It is said that even Pinter thought, as he wrote, that it would end in murder, but Hodge says, "He had too much integrity. It would have been more sensational, but the characters just wouldn't do that."

Hodge says: "People have decided it is about Buddha, Christ, the Id and the Ego. Terence Rattigan told Pinter that he could see it was about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, but Pinter said, 'No. It's about two brothers and a tramp.' If you discuss it too much you destroy the reverberations." The play is, in its author's words, "funny - up to a point." Hodge is all too aware of the balance; that hilarity is studded with "moments that are achingly sad, three nobodies talking about nothing". He has a similar respect for the music of the words and the gaps between them which the actor disregards "at his peril" and he likens the perfect timing to a Tommy Cooper joke.

Hodge says that he guesses Pinter made a promise to himself that he would never let the underdog be trodden on again. He shares this fierce sense of justice, although he reckons he has "a more benign view of the world". Perhaps because of this he has come to the conclusion that Aston's mistreatment was not to cure violence but because he was misunderstood: "a spinner of fantastic stories, an interpreter of dreams".

The idealism was there early. After the years of inspiration by Michael Croft at the National Youth Theatre (where he is still on the council) he failed to get into four drama schools and spent a year working for the social services. He started a street theatre, helped young offenders get work, and was involved in setting up an adventure playground. "I loved it all, but reapplied for drama school and was accepted by all four." He chose Rada and has seldom been out of work since.

A committed environmentalist, he has stood as a Green candidate and been arrested in protests against the Newbury bypass - although he says it's less easy to feel incensed now that he has moved from London to rural Oxfordshire.

He is still moved to anger, though - about the treatment of mental patients in the Forties and Fifties, about the state of British theatre which he'd like "to grab by the throat", although he quickly adds that the advance takings for The Caretaker are the best of Pinter's career. His restlessness shows in his desire "to make something from scratch" - probably a film. And he looks forward one day to playing Davies: "a modern Lear".

'The Caretaker': Comedy Theatre, SW1 (020 7369 1731) now previewing, opens Wed to 13 Jan

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