You shouldn't judge a play by its initial coverage - at least, if Harold Pinter's The Caretaker is anything to go by. Critics weren't expecting a lot when the struggling young playwright brought his new play to the Arts Theatre, London, in April 1960. But, almost immediately, this tragicomedy - an encounter between an old tramp (Davies) and two brothers (Mick and Aston) in a squalid and junk-cluttered west London flat in the late Fifties - was judged a modern classic.
"It's interesting," says Lindsay Posner, who, in a dizzying change of direction, is directing the Bristol Old Vic's upcoming production of The Caretaker. (Posner has recently directed both Nick Dear's Power at the National, and Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago in the West End.) "I was looking through records of productions at the Royal Court with its former artistic director, Max Stafford-Clark, and we noticed that often plays that get well reviewed at the beginning don't last, and those, which were ahead of their time, needed the tide to be turned."
The production of The Caretaker at the arts Theartre was another major example. A positive review [by Alan Pryce-Jones in The Observer] turned the tide.
Posner, the Old Vic's artistic director, has cast the quintessential Pinter actor, Terence Rigby, as Davies. It will be interesting to see what Rigby brings to the part of the tramp, originally played by Donald Pleasence. Having been used by Pinter himself in the world premieres of The Homecoming and No Man's Land, he certainly doesn't lack experience in interpreting Pinter's lines.
"I don't know if there is such a thing as a Pinter actor," says Posner, "but Rigby has a real insight into the outsider figure. He can clearly connect with this isolated, eccentric character."
The Caretaker deals with the shifts of power between the three characters who engage in an unnerving and obscure battle of wills in a seedy flat. It is essential for the cast to feel a rapport if the play is to be effective, but Posner says that it has been easy to key into that world. "There is a small cast. You can establish the intensity and relationships quite quickly."
"The heart of the story is that the two brothers clearly need to love each other," he says. "Davies's fatal mistake is in underestimating this brotherly love - and in trying to play them off against each other."
Meanwhile, a load of junk has been delivered from Bristol to be put on stage for rehearsals. "The themes are about survival, one-upmanship and claustrophobia," says Posner. "It doesn't work if you strip the stage." But, being quite minimal in his taste, it's been a long time since Posner has worked with more than 10 props. "I asked Pinter what he felt it was crucial to have on stage. He said, everything that is in the text, but beyond that it was up to me. So we are working out what to keep, and what to discard."
'The Caretaker', Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol (0117-987 7877; www.bristol-old-vic.co.uk), 4-27 September
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