Colin Firth: "I adored the play and wanted to work with Pinter and Pleasence. But I wasn't sure I wanted to play another character with problems. I thought I might find it depressing. I've fallen totally in love with the character. He's really one of the most happy and hopeful characters I've played. He's supremely generous. There's a real purity about him."
Above excerpt from THE FORTE OF FIRTH. Unidentified publication.
Donald Pleasence: I was 40 when I first played Davies. The disadvantage of doing it at 70 is that I haven't as much energy as I once had. I'm dead beat by the end of the week.
I hope my reading of the role has matured. I played Davies for so long he is rooted in me. I'm not a method actor. I don't get to the theatre three hours early in order to feel my way into the character. I put a bit of dirt on my face, climb into the long johns, and I'm on.
Excerpt from Pleasence's interview with Nick Smurthwaite, RETURN OF THE TRAMP. Unidentified publication.
Pleasence on Pinter: I wouldn't have done it with anyone else -- it would be pointless.
Excerpt from Peasence's 1991 interview with Peter Lewis, TRAMP'S PROGRESS. Excerpt © 1991 SUNDAY TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
Pleasence on his decision to return: [Pinter] asked me to do it about 15 or 20 years ago and I said, 'No, ask me again when I'm 70.' I reckon that by the time I'd done the play in England and New York and made the film, I knew what I was about -- I think it would have been stupid to try and do a Method on it.
Excerpt from Pleasence's 1991 interview with Georgina Brown, DUSTING OFF THE TRAMP. Unidentified publication.
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Comedy Theatre in London on June 20, 1991
Thirty years ago, Donald Pleasence's award-winning performance as a malodorous tramp in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker was celebrated from Shaftesbury Avenue to Broadway. Next Thursday he tackles the role again when a new production of the play, directed by Pinter himself, opens at the Comedy Theatre.
Many actors might balk at the prospect of attempting to recreate a performance that was once seen as a landmark in British theatre. But the pragmatic Mr. Pleasence has no qualms. "I'm not so energetic as I was then and Davies is an old man who jumps about a lot. On the other hand I am the right age now. I had to pretend to be old then and that was an added burden. Now I just play a man who happens to be old."
Pleasence, 71, is as convinced as ever about the merits of the piece, in which a tramp moves into a dismal attic room and is offered hospitality in turn by two very different brothers. "I knew the play was a masterpiece the first time I read it. I still think so." He has little patience with academics and critics who constantly trawl the play for hidden significance. The Caretaker is now on A-level syllabuses and Pleasence is sometimes invited to speak to sixth-formers on the subject.
"The way it is taught in schools is lamentable," he says. "They're all looking for symbols and what the play's about. The play's about three people, that's all. There are no symbols. All those English teachers ask what does it mean when the brothers smile at each other? It means that they've enjoyed a rare moment when they agreed about something. That's all it means. But they write long essays and set examinations about that smile."
Since he first attracted superlatives as the wheedling Davies in 1960. Pleasence has built a remarkably successful film career on the strength of his abilities to be both unnervingly menacing and unsettlingly menaced.
"It was a pathway towards glitter and money," he says. "I sometimes wish I hadn't taken it, but I did. Maybe I should have stuck to the theatre." Of the 70 or so films he has made, a number were, he admits, not of the highest quality. "No names will cross my lips," he says inscrutably.
His last stage appearance was 11 years ago when he played opposite Dorothy Tutin in Reflections at the Haymarket. "It was not very successful," he says. Since then, "I wasn't asked to do anything that I was remotely interested in. At the same time I was offered quite a lot of films for a lot of money and I guess money plays a large part in all our lives, except for the odd recluse or monk."
His screen credits range from Cul-de-Sac to Nosferatu and the Halloween series. Most recently he was working on Woody Allen's latest film and spent seven weeks in Hanoi filming Dien Bien Phu, a film by Pierre Schoendoerffer examining the legacy of French colonialism in Vietnam. But the chance of tackling Davies afresh, under the direction of Pinter himself, whom Pleasence wryly calls The Master, proved attractive enough to lure him away from any summer film offers.
"There is something about
live theatre that is quite intangible and very special,"
he says. If he had forgone films for theatre, he concludes, "I'd
have been a lot poorer. But professionally, theatre is more satisfying.
You're really in charge there."
from an unidentified publication.
If Harold Pinter's 60th birthday has been greeted with fulsome accolades, envious attacks and revivals galore, it is largely because of The Caretaker. This was the play that jolted into life a reputation that appeared to have suffered with the failure of The Birthday Party. Now we can open any dictionary of modern quotations and be sure of finding the querulous pleas and promises Donald Pleasence's tramp made in Donald McWhinnie's production in 1960.
Thirty years on, things have changed and not changed. Pinter now directs, but Pleasence's Davies again sets up home in the cluttered attic where the mentally damaged Aston precariously lives, is again teased by Aston's brother Mick, and again hopes to find salvation in downtown Sidcup. This is welcome news, because at 70 the actor is now much nearer the character's age than in 1960. He catches an exhaustion, a desolation missing not only from his own first performance, but from those of Warren Mitchell, Leonard Rossiter, and the other tramps who have made the play a modern classic.
But wait. Is that to overrate it? Well, let us first remember that, while it has driven academics into ecstasies of tortuous interpretation, Pinter's own gloss has stayed simple. They have compared Davies with Dionysus, the Wandering Jew, the tempter in an Everyman play, or Everyman himself. But all Pinter has said is that this is "a particular human situation, concerning three particular people."
Those campus extravagances are certainly testimony to a dramatic potency hard to explain. For many grave critics, the play cannot be the molehill it appears to be, so it must be a mountain in heavy disguise. But Pinter is correct, as his wilfully dowdy and downbeat production proves. The play involves perfectly real people fighting, if surreptitiously and even unconsciously, for territory, security, status and power. There is not a line in which the characters are not subtly watching, feeling out, and manipulating each other. If it is "about" anything, it is about the awful intricacies of emotional politics.
See the situation from the stance of Mick, a builder with heady dreams for the flat his brother is ruining, most recently by importing the smelly, shiftless Davies. The tramp must go -- but how? Bully-boy tactics, though helpful in gaining the old coward's allegiance, are not enough. No, the answer is to pretend to befriend him, slyly encourage him to insult his true benefactor, and, when Aston at last rejects Davies as the greedy, loveless creature he is, to send him packing. In effect, the tramp is inveigled into evicting himself.
Here, as always, it is the just conclusion. Yet Pleasence does win some grudging sympathy, more than in 1960. Though he can still angrily punch his palm with his fist, he knows his helplessness, and has traded some of his old aggression for a studied meekness. The absurd social pretensions remain, reflected in a Welsh accent which, though coarsened and hoarsened by bad living and foul weather, has a sing-song gentility to it. The malice is mutedly there, too. But so is defeat, emptiness and, in Pleasence's bulging eyes at the end, even horror. What is ahead is not Sidcup, but death.
But Pinter's production emphasises the vulnerability of youth as well as age, casting unusually young actors as the brothers. Peter Howitt's Mick might be a leather-clad tough leaving the pub for a game at Highbury; but there is burning disappointment in him, too, as well as covert affection for Colin Firth's Aston, whose blank face and flat, dull voice mask a desperate attempt to clamber out of chaos. The smile they exchange while Davies flounders justifies John Arden's remark, that one of the play's subjects is "the strength of family ties against an intruder." What can we call so subtle, suggestive and fascinating a piece but a classic?
Photos by Ivan Kyncl
Photos © 1991 Ivan Kyncl /
TRIUMPH PROSCENIUM PRODUCTIONS LIMITED. All Rights Reserved.
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