from the storm
Pinter's 'The Caretaker' brings Jonathan Pryce to SF
by Richard Dodds
Jonathan Pryce has scant San Francisco connections on his bulging resume, a situation now changed with the arrival of his acclaimed performance in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker at the Curran. He had been here before briefly for vacation, and then to shoot a scene or two for an unremembered movie, but there is one more memory painted – literally – in bright colors. To help make his way through drama school in London, he went door-to-door selling paintings on velvet. His best seller: scenes of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Talking by phone from Australia, where he was appearing in The Caretaker as part of the Adelaide Festival, he said he suggested San Francisco to the producers when they needed another stop on a short tour that will end at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "Somehow they did slip in Columbus, too," he said of an Ohio stop between SF and BAM. "It's like the old bus-and-truck tours. The set is being driven from San Francisco to New York, and the truck has to stop somewhere. So we're going to meet the set in Columbus."
Pryce's film choices veer from the classy to the wantonly commercial; look for him soon in G.I. Joe: Retaliation playing opposite Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But then there are films such as Carrington, in which he played the gay literary figure Lytton Strachey of London's Bloomsbury group. "When I was doing Carrington and the press asked, 'Have you ever played a gay character before?' I said, 'Many times, you've just never known it.'"
He is much more cautious in selecting stage roles. It's a policy that has stood him in good stead. On Broadway, he has won Tony Awards for Comedians and Miss Saigon, and a passel more citations for his London stage work. After The Caretaker, he heads into rehearsals for King Lear in London.
In The Caretaker, Pryce plays the role of Davies, a shabby but canny homeless man given lodging by one of two delusional brothers in the hovel they share. Back in 1961, when The Caretaker made its Broadway debut, the reviewer for The New York Times described the character Davies as "scrofulous." I had to look up its definition, which turns out to be "morally contaminated," and repeating this to Pryce, he said, "I'll go with that. He is absolutely morally contaminated."
Not a word out of Davies' mouth can be trusted, as he verbally parries, shifts, and bobs in order to play brother off brother to keep a roof over his head. While his true history is never confirmed in the text, Pryce said he has a clear take on the character's motivations. "The joy of playing him is that there are no rules to him," Pryce said. "He can behave in the moment, and there's never a point where you can say, 'Oh, Davies wouldn't do that.'"
While Pryce can't imagine that Pinter wanted to evoke pity for Davies, the actor does find his own sympathy for the character. Indeed, it seems imperative for an actor to find some way to embrace even a repellant character, I remarked, or you would be practically vomiting on stage. "Well, I am sometimes," Pryce replied, "because for four months they didn't wash my clothes. It's my one concession to method acting."
Pryce is eager for theatergoers to know that the play is not so obscure as to be feared, and that it contains considerable humor. "There are some small jokes early in the play, and if they laugh at those, you can feel them relax. But if the audience is getting too much of the light side, you can darken it. It's like playing a piece of music, where you can put more energy here and back off there."
Pryce appeared once before in The Caretaker, playing the thuggish, swaggering, self-deceiving brother Mick at the National Theatre in 1981. "I can remember tiny moments of playing Mick," Pryce said. "I can mostly remember Warren Mitchell playing Davies, and I had always hoped I would get a chance to play him."
When British director Christopher Morahan suggested such a project, Pryce was eager to sign on with a major stipulation. While he wanted the production to be eventually seen in London and New York, he insisted that it originate at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. That is where Pryce, 64, first fell in love with theater, and where he established his acting career. It was also a venue he visited as a teen when it was a music club not far from his north Wales home.
The Caretaker, which debuted in London in 1960, was the first production when Everyman opened its doors four years later, and for sentimental reasons, Pryce wanted to perform it there before the old structure was razed to make way for a new auditorium now under construction.
After the Everyman production transferred to London's West End, Pryce began to feel the toll of playing such an amoral character. "It's quite draining and quite wearing psychologically," he said. "You're not always in a happy place in your head playing Davies. Then there was an almost two-year gap since I last did it, and I came back to it with a great sense of excitement, and then I started doing it, and it was like, 'Oh, my God. He's back. I thought I had got rid of him.'"
The Caretaker will run at the Curran Theatre through April 22. Tickets are $31-$100. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to www.shnsf.com.