Oliver Townsend's set for The Caretaker twists the room that brothers Mick and Aston share into something larger and abstract, a dour room conjured into something freakish by Dali. A large disc floor places a door and a single lightbulb in its expected place but everything else is off-kilter, papers trapped in motion, desks levitating, and a bed hanging in the darkness in which people rise like Nosferatu as the sun expires. It is a striking visual representation of Harold Pinter's play, one that asks its audience to look at his 1960 breakthrough hit with fresh eyes. Christopher Haydon's production - his first after a successful stint running London's Gate - consistently interrogates the text anew.
It is not the first time the play has been seen with an all black cast but it may be the first time that the tramp Davies has been cast as foreign. That fine actor Patrice Naiambana, originally from Ghana and apprenticed in Sierra Leone, plays up the desperation of a man not prepared to reveal his true-self, who adamantly maintains that he is British born and bred even as the evidence mounts that he is anything but. His reluctance to travel to Sidcup to collect his papers takes on a new meaning. In an age of tales of immigrants piled head to toe into a room, Davies' naked desperation to keep a roof over his head and people away from the truth makes sense. We know nothing of his past because it is being invented on the fly, a new identity has to keep being invented to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
If the accent occasionally means lines of dialogue are lost, Naiambana still peels back the layers within the tramp. His charged accusations 'maybe it were them blacks' hints at a man who believes himself to be fully assimilated into a culture that still sees him as alien. His intentions as he attempts to turn one brother against another don't seem as malicious as usual, but of a man making it up as he goes along; used to having to turn every little advantage, any sign of weakness into his favour; his is a world where only the strongest survive. When he is presented with shoes, he cups them in his hands with a look of wonderment akin to King Midas discovering his gold. Human kindness has left this man behind.
It is originally Jonathan Livingstone's Aston who gives him a taste of it, a lumbering husk of a man, obsessed with building a shed and still recovering from the after effects of electric shock therapy. His thoughts may be slow but here is a a man full of honest kindness, one who doesn't think twice about inviting a stranger into his home. If Livingstone is slow and heavy David Judge's Mick is lithe and coiled, like a puma ready to pounce. Violence is never far from him, he's the kind you'd cross the street to avoid.
This violent menace is at the heart of so much of Pinter's work. Here Haydon pushes that atmosphere to the forefront, lighting from Paul Keogan casts the room in angular shadows while Elena Peña's sound design crackles with horror motifs, it can feel a little much at times but is consistent with Haydon's overall concept to turn Pinter's drama into a non-literal nightmare. In this, he succeeds.
The Caretaker runs at the Bristol Old Vic until 30 September. It then tours to Nuffield Southampton Theatres (10 to 14 Oct) before a run at Royal & Derngate, Northampton from 17 to 28 October.