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The Caretaker is now on in the Minerva Theatre until 13 July and our Heritage and Archive Manager Helena has been looking back through the archives at Harold Pinter’s appearances at CFT and investigating the origins of The Caretaker. Did you know that Pinter spent the Festival season in Chichester in 1995? He directed Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides, before playing the lead in a revival of his own play The Hothouse, both in the Minerva Theatre. Both productions then transferred to the West End. The following year, Pinter was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre.

Friends can hear more from Helena about the history behind The Caretaker and Pinter at CFT at the next Friends Friday event on 28 June.

Daniel Massey and Michael Pennington in Taking Sides Image: Ivan Kyncl 1995

Taking Sides follows the celebrated conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was interrogated as part of the post-war de-Nazification process in Germany. It explores the relationship between art and politics and the role of the artist in a totalitarian society. Pinter’s 1995 production starred Daniel Massey, Michael Pennington, Suzanne Bertish, Gawn Grainger, Geno Lechner and Christopher Simon. Massey was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Actor for his role as Furtwängler the following year.

Black and white Polaroid of Harold Pinter and Celia Imrie. Imrie looks up at Pinter with her hand around his neck. He has his eyes closed and looks despondent.
Harold Pinter and Celia Imrie in The Hothouse Image: Ivan Kyncl 1995

Harold Pinter wrote The Hothouse in the winter of 1958, just before The Caretaker. This revival at CFT was the first since its premiere in 1980 and also starred Christien Anholt, Peter Blythe, Tony Haygarth, Celia Imrie, Roland Oliver and John Shrapnel. Pinter starred as the unstable, power-hungry Roote, director of a government ‘rest home’ where the play is set. Like The Caretaker, The Hothouse swings between dark comedy and underlying menace. This was the first time in 30 years Pinter had acted in England under his own name – he had previously used the stage name David Barron.

Photos in the programme for The Hothouse 1995

The Caretaker was the play that catapulted Pinter towards commercial success and national fame. It opened at the Arts Theatre in London on 27 April 1960 then transferred to the Duchess, running for a total of 444 performances. It went on to become Pinter’s most performed play. It is often read as symbolic of religion, politics and psychology, although Pinter himself insisted that The Caretaker presents ‘a particular situation concerning three particular people’. Mystery and ambiguity of meaning are characteristic of Pinter’s dramas; the audience are left to watch the drama unpredictably unfold and make up our own minds.

Pinter revealed to Michael Billington for his biography that the idea for the play came from observing a nearby house when Pinter lived in a flat in the Chiswick High Road with his first wife. Pinter recalls a builder who owned the house, his brother who lived there, and a mysterious drifter who stayed for a few weeks.

I want as far as possible to leave comment to the audience; let them decide whether the characters and situations are funny or sad.

Harold Pinter in The Times, November 1959

Two actors are in a rehearsal room. The younger man grits his teeth and aggressively pulls the back of the older man's waistcoat, who has a shocked expression on his face and his arms out in front of him. Next to them is a messy pile of boxes, crates and blankets.
Jack Riddiford and Ian McDiarmid in rehearsal for The Caretaker Image: Ellie Kurrtz 2024

The programme for The Caretaker contains a specially commissioned article by Michael Billington about the play's origins and interpretations. You can also read more about CFT’s history here.