Pinter by Alezzo: hitting the nail on the head
“I distrust definitive labels,” Harold Pinter said in 1961. And he went on: “The old categories of comedy and tragedy and farce are irrelevant, and the fact that managers seem to have realized that, is a favourable change. But writing for the stage is the most difficult thing of all, whatever the system. I find it more difficult the more I think about it”. However, no matter how difficult it might have been for Pinter (London, 1930-2008), he continued writing for theatre until 2002, and in 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Indeed, his work, especially the earliest plays, could not be labelled as those “old categories.” That is the case of The caretaker, a play as heartbreaking as it is funny and ironic. It premièred in London in 1960 and is currently being shown in Buenos Aires as El cuidador, directed by celebrated director Agustín Alezzo, a great admirer of the British playwright. He has already staged several of his pieces. The collection, shown last year, was the most recent. And now Alezzo has turned to one of Pinter’s most popular theatre works, The Caretaker, the piece that catapulted him, in Michael Billington’s words (The life and work of Harold Pinter) “into the heady arena of commercial success and national fame.”
According to Alezzo, who spoke to the Herald about this staging, The Caretaker follows the same keynote as the rest of Pinter’s production. He narrates in different ways but there are always common features: “His look about relationships, human behaviour and human nature, how he unveils them, that is extraordinary.”
In this play, Aston (Santiago Caamaño) — a man in his early thirties who is mentally disturbed and spends his time isolated after a terrible episode he suffered in his teenage years — invites an old man, the tramp Davies (José María López), to live in his dilapidated house in a slummy suburb. Even if Aston helped Davies to get out of a difficult situation and was generous with him, the tramp, who is very shrewd and manipulative, will try to hold the reins and set the rules of the house. Mick (Federico Tombetti) unexpectedly introduces himself as Aston’s younger brother. He doesn’t live there but he is the owner of the house and he is determined to protect his brother, even if they have a distant relationship. So he will unmask Davies and make clear that he is a lazy person who tries to take advantage of the people who help him, especially those weaker than him. Both brothers — from different perspectives and with different intentions — will offer Davies the job of caretaker.
The play deals with constant issues in Pinter such as the power exercised through language, which turns into a weapon; the tactics and alliances we make in everyday relationships to achieve a certain goal; pipe dreams used as a support to go on living; external and internal danger; identity and ambiguity; the violence we suffer but also inflict; and the failure in establishing connections between human beings. As usual in his work, an everyday intimate situation can be compared to many other situations experienced by anyone anywhere, and it also has political implications, because it can be easily transferred to wider social fields. The secret seems to reside in how concrete and specific Pinter’s writing is (the tinier the conflict, the more transcendent it gets). He said: “I start off with people, who come into a particular situation. I certainly don’t write from any kind of abstract idea. And I wouldn’t know a symbol if I saw one. I don’t see that there’s anything very strange about The Caretaker, for instance, and I can’t quite understand why so many people regard it in the way they do. It seems to me a very straightforward and simple play.” So even if his work has been considered allegorical or an example of the “theatre of the absurd,” his plays are actually realistic.
Alezzo refers to “the damage critics have done through denominations such as ‘theatre of the absurd.’ I do not believe in those labels. Those are simplifications, which lead to stage Pinter in an absurd way, with actors doing strange things. On the contrary, the absurdity should spring from the same situations, because reality is absurd in itself.”
The Argentine director explains that “Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett cannot be lumped together. That is a huge mistake. It leads to generalities which prevent you from seeing the points where they are really connected. Their only common feature is that they start from a given situation. What happened before is not explained, it has to be deducted from what happens on stage. And that is how a new kind of writing comes up, a new form that pre-existed with Alfred Jarry since 1900.”
This lack of information about previous circumstances and motivations of the characters brings along uncertainty and ambiguity, and that is one of the difficulties of staging a Pinter play, even if his writing is so theatrical. Alezzo reveals that he focuses with the cast on the definite intentions of the characters at all times and it is from there that they begin to look into the behaviours. Besides he points out “how Pinter solves certain situations without words; just the actions speak for themselves.”
“He is an exceptional author, profound, refined and clever,” Alezzo told the Herald. “But his work is not easy and that is why his plays are frequently a flop when they are staged. If you have to stage an author such as Neil Simon, you can do it more or less satisfactorily, but it will be kept afloat. With Pinter, however, if you don’t hit the nail on the head, you will definitely fail.”
For his version of The caretaker, Alezzo rehearsed every day for three months. The results of this arduous process are self-evident. The three actors subtly develop, in a spider-like manner, the web of these different relationships between the characters; and violence, intrigue, compassion, humour and horror are accurately dosed throughout the performance.
The director designed the costumes with Andrea Lambertini, and the sound with Federico Tombetti. The light design belongs to the very talented Félix “Chango” Monti and Marcelo Salvioli created a wonderful set — packed and suffocating, as the reader may imagine through Pinter’s description. Tombetti was also in charge of the translation from English and managed to carefully rescue the musicality of the original text. Moreover, Alezzo was also very respectful with the stage directions suggested by Pinter. In this sense, he told the Herald: “I think that when a director has a bad piece in his hands he should make it better. But when the play is good, it must be respected. Pinter’s work does not need any help to be better”. But thanks to his intelligent perspective, his vast experience and his subtle manner, Alezzo actually strengthens all the qualities of The Caretaker, and he will surely do the same with The birthday party, The hothouse and The homecoming, three plays by Pinter he would especially like to direct in the near future.
When and where
El cuidador is held Saturdays at 10pm and Sundays at 8pm, at El Camarín de las Musas, Mario Bravo 960.