Pinter, Plagues and Two Aussie Peckers Light Up London Stages

To London for a celebratory anniversary-a perfect 70th birthday gift for Harold Pinter, nowadays treated in England with the reverence of theater royalty. More power to him! The 40th-anniversary production of The Caretaker , Mr. Pinter’s breakthrough play, which he wrote when he was an impoverished 29-year-old, is a fantastic achievement in every way.

For one glorious thing, it stars Michael Gambon as the tramp Davies, and Mr. Gambon, the greatest actor of our time, is quite simply giving one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen. His wheedling vagrant is often played narrowly with sly, interloping menace. Donald Pleasance, who originated the role, stamped it that way. But Mr. Gambon’s mesmerizing performance gives the darkly comic central character the richer dimension of a wounded tragic hero, and we are amazed.

The appalling sight of his down-and-out, stinking mess of a man is something to behold. He shuffles onstage like a half-mad, unearthly grotesque. Not even Beckett’s tramps were ever like this. But in Mr. Pinter’s classic drama of self-delusion and power games, “The Great Gambon” is the human equivalent of an open, festering wound. His tramp connives and threatens; he possesses a lunatic grandeur. (“I’ve had dinner with the best!”) He bullies, begs and steals; he might kill you. He survives, cruelly. We might even find ourselves thinking, “There but for the grace of God go us.” But it is Mr. Gambon’s artless woundedness that touches us. He can make even this foul derelict of humanity-this pitiful, wormy thing -immensely humane.

He also takes an amazing acting gamble. He slides effortlessly in and out of different accents-Welsh, a suggestion of Irish, posh Cockney even (the near-lost Edwardian Cockney that rhymes “cross” with “force”). With any other actor, it could be suicide. But Mr. Gambon doesn’t make a flashy big deal out of it. It isn’t a trick. He’s too great an actor for tricks. To the contrary, his accent holds the key to his masterful portrait. His vagrant belongs nowhere and everywhere. Mr. Gambon has pulled off the impossible. He’s made him Everyman.

The Caretaker , as ever with Mr. Pinter, appears outwardly to be about often amusing small talk. (The way to Sidcup; banking facilities; good beer; interior design; civilized things.) In the beginning was Evasion. Pinterland-the cliché goes-is also a world where nothing really happens, except, perhaps, silent deaths. The dangerous, psychological rhythms and terrors of the famous play have been brilliantly conveyed by the director, Patrick Marber (whose recent play Closer made him the heir to Mr. Pinter). There are also electric contributions from Rupert Graves as the property-owning greaseball Mick, and Douglas Hodge as the tender, brain-damaged Aston. The trio of lost souls is memorably complete. All three need care and attention in the rotting world, or no man’s land, of The Caretaker . And the amazing Mr. Gambon and company need our attention on Broadway as soon as possible.

During my brief visit to London, my cup ought to have runneth over with a hit show about the ancient Australian art of genital origami and a new production by my favorite Theatre de Complicite. But alas, Complicite’s Light , playing at the Almeida, turned out to be a relentlessly brutal view of the breakdown of civilization that takes as its metaphor a plague-ridden rabbit, of all sweet things.

Simon McBurney’s innovative company is always worth watching, and Complicite does more things with plagues and planks, bestiality and body bags, rape and rabbits than we have a right to expect from a simple moral fable. But I’m afraid that I found the moral of Light either absent or glib. Civilization is doomed without light, gladness, morality or art. And doomed to go on repeating itself like-well, like the rabbit. The commitment and imagination of Complicite-its ghostly puppet work, an astonishing human pig, the surreal body buried alive as if sucked up by the earth itself-remain vital. But this is the first story of theirs that has left me coldly detached.

Finally, the hit show for morons, Puppetry of the Penis , at the Whitehall, is remarkable in its way. Two naked, amiable Australians in sneakers and socks bend their wee-wees into all sorts of things-including the Eiffel Tower, an emu, a bulldog, a parachute, a snail, a burger, Kentucky Fried Chicken, an electric fan, the Loch Ness Monster and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Don’t ask. My own personal favorite was the passing of the Olympic torch. Even so, I found Puppetry of the Penis a wee bit repetitive. Once you’ve seen one baby kangaroo in a pouch, you’ve seen them all. Freak shows have always proved weirdly popular down the ages, however. “We’re very proud of our country,” one of the Aussies announced pleasantly while ingeniously shaping his willy into a boomerang. “And as you can imagine, they’re very proud of us.”

That’s why they sent them to England.