Interview: Iain Sinclair, director of The Caretaker at Ensemble Theatre

Iain Sinclair, the acclaimed director whose production of Harold Pinter’s classic The Caretaker opens at Ensemble Theatre tonight, took some time out from rehearsals to have a frank and informative chat (via email) about the timelessness of Pinter’s work, the critics, how the Ensemble Theatre itself alters how you approach a play and why you, yes you dear reader, should definitely come and see it.

This interview has been slightly condensced and editted.

The CROC: Why The Caretaker? What was it about this particular piece that made you want to direct it now?

Iain Sinclair (I.S.): I learned how to direct from The great Max Stafford Clark. He showed me two lines from The Caretaker and invited me to feel the potential brimming out of them. 
Aston: Where were you born then?
Davies: (Darkly) What do you mean?

The universe of experience between the two characters felt bigger somehow. Trauma in the past, danger in the future and an unbearable moment between the two. Also, lurking in the gap between Pinter’s text and subtext I could feel a joke wrapped in an unmistakable sense of threat most particularly the threat of being tagged with an identity…

From then on I have had a burning desire to explore the play onstage with actors that I admire. Having spent 5 weeks with the text now I feel like I am just at the very beginning of my journey with this play and this extraordinary writer.

In a time when everybody in the middle class is desperately tagging themselves and others with self declared identities and striving to find as many grievances as possible to declare to the world, it’s chastening to get a taste of how truly disenfranchised people behave in The Caretaker. First off the characters in this play hide their identities and then they do whatever they can to reclaim their dignity, they don’t parade their victimhood like a badge of honour. Pinter knew what it was like to be disenfranchised and “other” first hand, he grew up Jewish in Hackney, and he survived. The play rings with observed experience.

CROC: In the trailer [above] you used a Douglas Adams quote – “the long dark tea-time of the soul”. What’s the balance between the fear and the comedy in the play?

I.S.: It’s quite literally a balancing act and previous productions have tilted and veered in all possible directions. Jonathan Pryce leant into the lighter aspects and was lively, Timothy Spall was ferocious and rodent like, Michael Gambon was a chameleon for all seasons. It is such a rich palette. Sometimes our version [of the] play is hilarious, the next unsettling , the next truly frightening. I have a feeling that our production will continue to shake the bottle every night  and see which elements surface.

We have also discovered that everytime we try to trap or tame this dramatic beast it bites us back. I’m a big believer in the “different every night” principle put forward by the great Mike Alfreds, every play has parameters of course but within them there is a vast field of artistic choice. An arena for actors to dive into. Depending on the night you see, the balance, the mix will be gloriously different. It has animal sensibility. Modernity has done a number on our instinctive and intuitive selves and plays like this rekindle those dormant sensibilities.

Anthony Gooley, Henry Nixon, Darren Gilshenan in rehearsals. Credit: Prudence Upton

CROC: Let’s talk about the cast – how’d you settle on this trio of Darren Gilshenan, Anthony Gooley and Henry Nixon? And what have you discovered about them in the rehearsal process?

I.S. The moment [Ensemble Artistic Director] Mark Kilmurray invited me to work on this play I knew I had to work with actors that I knew well. All of us have done a number of successful shows together and I’m leaning heavily into the trust that we share.

Darren is a master of merrily leading an audience town the primrose path to hell and has done so with me in plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Our Town, Anthony Gooley has done six shows with me, he has a heart the size of a Hindu cow, is ferociously literate and was the only man I could trust with radiating Aston’s trapped soul through a very small behavioural window and Henry Nixon … well all I can say is come and see what Henry Nixon is doing with Mick a good deal of it defies description and I’m loving all of it.

All of us have dreamed about putting on a Pinter for well over 20 years and now it’s finally happening. We are chomping at the bit to share all our hard and passionate work.

Directing The Caretaker has taken every skill that I have developed since graduating in UK in 1996. I surely would have ballsed it up if I took it on as a young hotshot, I would have been all desperate to “make my mark” and “put my stamp” on it! I’m still not entirely sure that I’ve served the actors well enough as I speak one day away from opening but I can declare that I have given
it everything I’ve got, and then some. The same goes for the actors, we have finished each day of rehearsal feeling like we have done three.
I’m determined now to do as many works of Harold’s as I can before I die.

Anthony Gooley, Henry Nixon, Darren Gilshenan in rehearsals. Credit: Prudence Upton

CROC: Property is the great Sydney obsession and we’re in the middle of a crisis for renters and the homeless – has that fed into the work? How does the play speak to modern Sydney?

I.S.: The definition of a Classic work is that it resonates though time. The Caretaker does just that. The profound insecurity of homelessness has been with us since we harnessed fire and the housing situation today is an echo of that. This play deals with people at the literal bottom of the pile. All of us walk past the chronically homeless and choose not to do anything about it on a daily basis and it’s shameful, but the reason we do so is complex.

Often, we intuit that if we were to enter their world you need to be prepared for the hurricane of chaos and dysfunction that may have gotten them onto the streets in the first place. This happens in Pinter’s play. Aston brings back a Pandora’s box of trouble in the guise of an elderly tramp. Mental illness and social dysfunction is no picnic and it’s untruthful to present these people simply as hapless victims of society or of capitalism in general. All the great works present a complex picture beyond moralising, one that is beyond good and evil, that is how they endure. Pinter was profoundly political but as a
dramatist he was a great deal more than a moralist or a topical commentator. 

Henry Nixon, Darren Gilshenan in rehearsals. Credit: Prudence Upton

CROC: You’re no stranger to interpreting modern classics – how do you find new life in familiar material?

Truly classic material is already alive, all a director has to do is help actors free it from the prison of convention. Get all the stuff out of its way and let it cast its unique spell. Quite often the stuff in the way is stupid shit that critics have said in the past. The trouble is that most critics haven’t been in the crucible of rehearsal before, the worst ones haven’t created a single thing, just commented and analysed. Commentary and analysis isn’t promethean, it is missing the creative spark. My first job is to scrape off all the plaque and use only the
words of the dramatist. The key is to set a classic free from opinion.

St Augustine said that the truth is a lion, all you need to do is set it free. That’s our one goal. I find the need to put a “stamp” on a classic as crazy and signing your name at the bottom of something you didn’t paint. Humility and dedication is the key to breathing life into great works, if we stop shouting at them and trying to tell them what they are and instead, listen they enrich our world in ways we previously couldn’t even fathom. Sir Peter Hall once said that the best way to make Shakespeare boring is by trying to “make it interesting”. The best thing for fire is fuel and oxygen, anything extra to that will dampen the possibility of ignition.

Henry Nixon, Darren Gilshenan in rehearsals. Credit: Prudence Upton

CROC: How much does the specific theatre change the way you approach a text? What does the Ensemble Theatre itself bring to the experience of The Caretaker

I.S.: Evolutionary anthropologists say that humans evolved to cluster in groups between 150 and 300 and as a result we can hold that number of people meaningfully in our consciousness. The Ensemble is bang in the sweet spot and that means we can engage in a meaningful shared experience, what the French call “complicité”. If the audience is bigger than that you start to have to add soundscapes and choreography and all sorts of other bells and whistles
to keep the audience united. The Ensemble space is my favourite in that regard. The audience comes in as separate people but they leave as a group.

CROC: So, if someone is a complete “Pinter-virgin”, why should they come see The Caretaker at the Ensemble?

Because it will open the door to Jez Butterworth and Conor McPherson and Caryl Churchill and John Romeril and Tom Holloway and Kate Mulvany and Declan Greene and all of the other exceptional playwrights out there who consciously or subconsciously owe a debt to Harold Pinter for the doors he opened wide for dramatists the world over.
Also because it will awaken parts of your soul that may have fallen asleep during the quiet horror of lockdown… oh and did I mention that it’s very funny, piss funny. 

Thanks to Iain Sinclair for his time and thoughts, as well as the teams at Ensemble Theatre and Kabuku PR for their help bringing this together. A full review of The Caretaker is coming up. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets on the Ensemble Theatre website.





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