The Caretaker

The Caretaker begins with an altruistic act: Aston invites Davies into his room, after rescuing him in a fight. Davies describes the fight: he was in the right, and gave a reasonable account of himself- these are pitiful attempts to deceive. Davies is a tramp. Such generosity is not rewarded.

There are three men in the play: Aston’s brother Mick owns the building, whose rooms are otherwise uninhabitable. A bucket hanging from the roof catches drips; the room is clogged with rubbish such as a disconnected gas cooker, a metal sink and draining board, and a television. The man behind me refers to Davies as a “Street person”- no, he is a “homeless person” because the play is British- indeed, a tramp because it is from the 1960s.

At separate times Davies confronts Aston, or Mick. It seemed to me the tension could be increased or decreased by the director at will: have the men closer, or further apart; have them observe all the pauses in the stage directions, or speak more slowly. I would have the set much smaller than the Old Vic stage, as the room would be smaller than that; outside the room I would have darkness.

Davies tells stories of his life. He went to a monastery in Luton because they were handing out shoes, but the monk told him to piss off. “Piss off”, he said. Davies spoke back, no-one would talk to him like that. He will go to Sidcup to get references, but he never does. Aston wants to build a shed. Mick wants the remaining rooms on the upper floor decorated, and has precise ideas how; that won’t happen either, though Mick seems the most effectual character, prowling the stage with threatening grace.

Aston had electro-convulsive therapy which damaged his brain. Davies uses this against him: “They’ll come for you, with those pincers”.

We sat, waiting for the play to start, watching heavy rain fall on a steep roof in the dark. It is cheerless. The characters can’t plan, can’t foresee consequences, can’t communicate, but “no-one actually starves”.

R wanted to go, as he had done it for A-level, forty years ago. He forgot the tickets, and I had to go back for them; we needed a taxi to cross London, we were too late to get the bus; he had bought full price tickets, and needed to change them for disabled persons’ tickets; the box office woman was charming, he wanted to prove he was disabled with his disabled person’s railcard, but she did not need that. She was charming, and a cold hard coming we had of it. I offered him an arm for the few steps; led him off in the wrong direction to get the bus home; he was perturbed by people pushing past to get to their seats, touching the back of his head, but bore it. It seemed more a task to achieve than an entertainment to enjoy.

Cezanne, card players


To Medea, at the Almeida theatre. It is a slog. I had been hoping the all-consuming anger would invigorate, but it enervates. They destroy each other.

It starts with the mother from hell, her beautifully grating voice in a triumphant monotone saying over and over, “I told you so”. All Medea’s suffering is her own stupid fault. If only she had done exactly what her mother said, she would be happy. Her mother was happy. You can see this was a lie, and so can Medea, who stands quite still, head down, shoulders slumped, part turned away.

So much dark beauty in this play! The mother’s voice, the daughter’s posture, beautifully observed, beautifully real, beautifully merciless. The complete absence of hope or joy in the whole ninety minutes gives a long, slow burn of catharsis, rather than a single moment.

The chorus of five yummy-mummies with their babies blame her, of course. They put up with it, why should not she? They keep going, why should she think herself worth any better? She is not completely stupid, she knew the deal. He provides the money, he gets to play away. The money, and the subtle gradations of importance it gives them, is some compensation.

The play is one long marital row. The topics are relentlessly banal. The boys want their father to take them to Arsenal, and do not understand when he does not. Medea is a writer; Jason uses his contacts to prevent her getting published. Then he has a job offer, and she manages to thwart it. They destroy each other. He appears in metal breast-plate, then in ancient overcoat and rags. She whines in self-pity.

There are steps down in the middle of the stage. She pushes the boys down them, then slowly shovels grit down the hole, trudging slowly back and forth from a grit pile at the back of the stage scattering grit as she goes. I loathe that scattering of grit, so untidy, so wasteful!

There is not even her death as a relief, only a lapsing into silence.


It was the most sympathetic dramatic depiction of a transsexual transition I have ever seen. It was also generalised: this is everyone’s experience, unless they are cursed to suffer immaturity and the loss of all potential. It was completely unexpected for me: I knew the play Bakkhai would be the God Dionysus coming upon a man, and changing him utterly, but until I saw it, I did not know how. I was consumed by it.

Bakkhai is at the Almeida theatre until 19 September: get a ticket, it is worth a trip to London. The image of Ben Whishaw and the experience of the Oresteia there was enough to sell it to me. The animal grace and danger in the photograph is multiplied on stage. He also wears a dress, of thin animal skins, and dances as a woman in long hair. As The Bible says, “male and female God created them”- we are all a bit of both.

I felt, early on, there would be little drama. The God is a God- or daemon, there is no precise English equivalent- who will clearly crush the man. Pentheus, played by Bertie Carvel, comes on arrogant in his power as King of Thebes. He is the rational man, seeking Order in the city, and despising the worshippers as merely dirty and silly or mad. Because of his felt need to preserve order, he feels able to exert any violence against Dionysus or the worshippers, yet none of it has any effect. He believes he is tying Bakkus with rope, but instead is tying a bull. Such energy he devotes to tying it! Pentheus thinks our civilisation is all that has value, and our atavistic drives, emotions and heart-leadings are as nothing in comparison: worth nothing, having no power. He does not see.

Dionysus suggests he go to spy on the Bakkhai. But they are women: they will tear a spy to pieces; so he must disguise himself as a woman! Pentheus is at first revolted, but then agrees.

He appears in an ill-fitting black skirt suit with gauche frills and a narrow gold chain belt. That was the most awful moment for me. I have worn that suit. You have worn it too, not knowing better, not knowing what fits or suits- perhaps your dress sense is still lacking. You, cis people, have worn it: trying something new for the first time, you just get it horribly wrong.

He is uncomfortable, but joins the dance: at first self-conscious but soon authentically feeling.

If you read the book, you would see that his mother Agave, a mad worshipper who does not recognise him, kills him. She tears him to pieces, and must be told that the head she flaunts is that of her son. She goes into exile from safe, civilised Thebes. However in this play Agave is also portrayed by Bertie Carvel. Now, s/he is relaxed, unaffected, authentic, a woman accepted as such by other women. Indeed, perhaps I am the mother of my old male act, which I have torn apart and consumed.

The Bakkhai are the chorus, ten women who sing close harmony. There is a great deal of lush beauty in the production.

I do not normally play the fan-girl, but was so bowled over I wanted to get the script, and get Ben to sign it. Out came Bertie, whom I had not till then recognised as Jonathan Strange: well, he is an actor, able to portray several characters. He told me that the Greeks originally would have had only three actors, plus the chorus: so their doubling would be the same as the modern production. Euripides portrayed a sex change. He is delighted that the Greeks would think of it that way, and I am so moved.

I am pretty sure that woman is trans, so I go to speak to her.

-I think we may share some experiences.
-Well, we’re both tall.
-Er, are you trans?
-Yes. Are you trans?
I acknowledge I am.

We talk a bit. I feel mocked by this conversation, disrespected: I want to share my enthusiasm, she rebuffs me. Well, you do not normally just talk to strangers in the theatre,  but it feels transphobic to me: why would we not want to associate with each other, were we not transphobic?

Ben Whishaw

There is a longer queue for Ben.

I am touched by that God, I say.

He is a good God to be touched by, he says.

Ben Whishaw 2


Robert Icke’s adaptation of the Oresteia at the Almeida theatre is about perception, lying, pretense, waking up, and purpose. You know the story, but this post contains major spoilers about the execution. It is the best night I have had at the theatre for years, and is worth a plane flight from New York if you have the dosh.

Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. His wife murders him, and their son Orestes avenges his father by murdering his mother. The first thing Klytemnestra says to her husband after he murders their child is, “I still love you”.

At the start, it is absolutely clear that Klytemnestra and Agamemnon have two daughters, one of whom he sacrifices in order to get a fair wind to Troy. At the end, it is absolutely clear that he only ever had one daughter, whom he killed. That is the point of it. We do not know anything, because we do not see clearly, or because we delude ourselves. At the start of the play, Agamemnon is busily lying to the world and himself- he tells the television cameras that his cause is just and there will be an easy victory, and he talks about his happy family dinners together, while his elder daughter bitches at him.

Agamemnon’s advisers tell him that he must sacrifice Iphigenia. He will win the people’s loyalty by showing what he is prepared to pay, is one argument. He gives in. Klytemnestra argues, begs, pleads, and physically attacks him in an attempt to stop him. Then he poisons their daughter, all the while assuring her how brave she is being.

The world changes. The stage goes dark, there is a great wind and a harsh cry of brass. I found this electrifying, and beautiful at the time, and now think it is Reality bursting in: the lies have led to Murder, and cannot be sustained any more.

The first thing Klytemnestra says to her husband after is, “I still love you”. She says it so sincerely and mournfully that it might be true. I loved her in that moment, and was rooting for her from then on. She has woken up. Perhaps she is lying consciously now: she needs to lull him, so she may humiliate, dominate, crush, destroy then murder him. Perhaps she tells the truth: she still loves, though she hates. She has her sense of purpose, and carries it out, clear eyed. Now, I see her as a monster: she forms her purpose to kill, and carries it out without remorse; and I still love her.

I loved the dark, viscous pool of blood seeping from Agamemnon as he lay dead. It was beautiful.

Beside this, Orestes’ murder of his mother is weak, cowardly and in a strange way innocent. He knows that he should avenge his father. That is what everyone expects- except that it is still wrong to kill his mother. After he kills her, she appears to still be alive, and they have a loving scene together: he cannot admit to himself what he has done. Then the lights go out and the brass screams again: humankind cannot bear very much reality, but this reality must break through. He is a weakling, hardly conscious of what he wants or what he does behind the self-image he must preserve. The child is the price.

Orestes challenges my verdict. You’re trying to simplify me. To pack me down into one easy diagnosis. A judgment. He’s this one thing. Finished. It is, and is not, legitimate to do that.

Collier, Clytemnestra after the murder