The Caretaker – Ensemble Theatre (NSW)

Written by Harold Pinter

Reviewed by Juliana Payne

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

14 October to 19 November 2022
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli

Images by Prudence Upton

The perfectly rendered, tiny, cramped, cluttered London flat which is the setting for The Caretaker is a sharp contrast to the balmy harbour-side exterior of the Ensemble Theatre. That’s not the only juxtaposition of opposites that is thrown in the audience’s faces. Director Iain Sinclair crafts this well-known, and some would say, iconic play into a newly confronting and uncomfortable experience; there’s no reassuring plotlines or characters for the well-heeled theatregoers at this performance. We’re grabbed by the scruff of our necks and forced to witness the absurdity, contradictions, and sometimes pure spite of human relationships. And it’s great fun!

The plot, in fact, is immaterial to writer, Harold Pinter. It’s all in the language: the pauses, the stumbles, the repetitions. The vocabulary itself is deceptively simple. There’s nary a multisyllabic word to be heard, yet complicated personalities unfold before us. Three fine actors – Darren Gilshenan, Anthony Gooley and Henry Nixon – make it look easy. But every grimace, flinch, wink and stare are carefully placed and they all mean something. The way they try and manipulate each other, their lies and obfuscations, their whimpering and blustering, are all designed to throw the absurd unpleasantness of human nature into sharp relief.

Gilshenan brings the full power of his unique physical acting style to bear on his character; it’s a joy to watch an actor at the top of his game. Gooley’s quiet stillness belies a stubborn selfishness that today we’d recognise as passive aggression, and Nixon’s brash fast-talking Cockney leaves you breathless. Together the three of them lock us into their suffocating world and it’s utterly compelling.

The set and costumes by Veronique Benett were highly detailed and evocative – the rusty junk and dusty blankets are depressingly real. Also, the set didn’t wobble when they slammed the door – wonderful! The way Matt Cox lit the final scene stayed on my retinas far into the night – you have to see it to understand its impact.

The Ensemble team have given us a great opportunity to enjoy a bitter lesson of our very human weaknesses.

I’m not sure why they felt the need for two intervals, there were no set or costume changes – which broke the spell, but it was simply the great skill of the actors that kept us enthralled. One of the outstanding elements of Pinter’s plays is that he can never be accused of bald exposition. The tension is built each moment, almost with each phrase, as the characters reveal their real selves and motivations, so fewer (or no) breaks would be preferable.

Now don’t get me wrong – this is by no means an unenjoyable experience! There is much dark hilarity throughout the performance, made even funnier by Gilshenan’s exquisite timing and facial expressions.  The mood and tone swings from Laurel and Hardy to Cain and Abel and back again – the laughs flow freely as the darker side of humanity is laid bare for us.

This play is an important piece of theatrical history – it is very much of its time, and the Ensemble team have given us a great opportunity to enjoy a bitter lesson of our very human weaknesses. Huzzah!


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Playwright Harold Pinter
Director Iain Sinclair
Assistant Director Danielle Maas
Set & Costume Designer Veronique Benett
Lighting Designer Matt Cox
Sound Designer Daryl Wallis
Stage Manager Lauren Tulloh
Costume Supervisor Renata Beslik

Darren Gilshenan
Anthony Gooley
Henry Nixon

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