Newport Playgoers’ Christopher Bissex-Williams Discusses Return To Pinter’s The Caretaker

Newport Playgoers Society bring Harold Pinter’s classic play The Caretaker to the stage of Newport’s Dolman Theatre this April.

The play finds Aston bringing Davies, a tramp with pretensions into his derelict household shrine. All that is left of Davies’ past now is the existence in Sidcup of some papers that will prove exactly who he is and enable him to start again. Aston also has dreams: he has always been good with his hands and there is so much to do in the house. Aston’s hopes are tied to his flash brother Mick’s; he aspires to live in a luxurious apartment. However, human nature is a big spoiler of plans…

Directed by Jack Guard, The Caretaker is a three-hander play performed by James Reynolds, Ryan Salter and Christopher Bissex-Williams. Chris is no stranger to the role of Davies having played the part on stage on two previous occasions.

Here, in the second of our interviews for the Pinter play, Chris discusses The Caretaker with Andy Howells.

Christopher Bissex-Williams has played the role of Davies three times during his time with Newport Playgoers Society Photo: Paul Johnson/Pixels In Time

What attracts you to a play? You have done a whole range of roles and you even provided a voice-only role for the last Newport Playgoers production, Snake In The Grass

Psychologically, Davies is such an interesting character. He’s what we might have called a “derelict” in the 1960s, luckily, you don’t see some any of these characters about these days, although we still see a lot of homeless people. He is a homeless man, but the sort of man who used to go around the country from town to town picking up a job here and there, while getting by as well as he could.

He’s also very crafty, he uses the two brothers and tries to pit them against each other, but what he’s looking for is a home, that’s what he really wants, and he thinks he’s landed in a place for the rest of his life, as he’s old. 

You’ve played this role of Davies in The Caretaker before?

Back in 1973, when I was 25, I was a member of the Elizabethan Players, a very good group at that time, who were invited to Canada to take four plays for six weeks. These included The Caretaker, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet and The Hollow Crown. 

I was both in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet as Rosencrantz. At the last minute, the actor who was supposed to be playing the part of Davies in The Caretaker had to drop out, this was just before we were going to mount it. They couldn’t think of who to ask, so I cheekily asked “Well, can I have a go at it?”  I was only 25, while the character is 70. They did, so I donned lots of prosthetic make-up and we had a very successful run, both here in Newport at The Dolman Theatre and in Toronto at the Lester B Pearson Memorial Theatre.

Then, 20 years later, again quite by chance we were going to do Dr Faustus. Bruno Cook and I were going to play the two main parts, he was playing Mephistopheles and I was playing Dr Faustus. It had to be called off for several reasons, so we had to quickly find another play which would accommodate both of us, so we thought The Caretaker. Bruno played Mick and I played Davies.  This was at the age of 45 with less prosthetic make-up this time!

Now of course we are doing it again, the audition came up and I thought I must have one last go at it. Luckily, I got the part, and I am the right age to play it although I’m a little too old now as Davies is 70 and I’m 75.

You’ve grown into the part.

I certainly have. Somebody said to me the other day, “you’ve waited all this time, now, you’ve become the actor you should be!” (laughs).

How do you find performing this play as its basically a three-hander?

While James and Ryan have got quite a lot to do as there are some huge speeches, I’ve got around 60% of the lines because Davies never stops talking. The lines were still there from 30 years ago and it’s so enjoyable to play something which has got so much to it. Its not just a fleeting appearance.

Do the lines just come back to you?

I found that they are there somewhere in my brain, most of them!

Of all the major parts you’ve done with Newport Playgoers which have you enjoyed most?

This has been my absolute favourite. I’ve had some favourites. I loved playing the MC in Cabaret and I loved playing Lord Foppington in The Relapse, but Davies is my real favourite. This will probably be my last role as I’m 75, I can’t go on forever!

Well, I hope we’ll see you do some more appearances yet Chris! How long have you been with Newport Playgoers now?

I started in 1963 and the first role I played was the role of Peter, the Soldier Boy in The Tinder Box. Since then, I’ve probably played over one hundred parts and directed quite a few as well.

James Reynolds, Ryan Salter and Chris Bissex-Williams in rehearsal for Newport Playgoers production of The Caretaker directed by Jack Guard. The play runs at the Dolman theatre, Newport from April 19th – April 22nd, 2023. Photo by Paul Johnson / Pixels in Time.

What’s been fun to direct over the years?

I loved doing The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Something’s Afoot and last year I directed Tonto Evans. I tend to go to the lighter stuff as it gives me a bit of a break and I love comedy anyway.

What drew you to acting in the first place?

I used to travel on the bus passing the old Little Theatre (which was the theatre before The Dolman), and I used to look at the notices outside saying what they were playing, and I thought “I’d love to be part of that”.

In school I started playing roles from the age of 10, I played Androcles in Androcles and The Lion. I did several parts in school, so from that moment I just got the bug. I’ve loved it ever since.

Was there an actor you aspired to?

I loved John Gielgud. I preferred him to Lawrence Olivier, although Olivier was showier. I think John Gielgud had more class.

Director Jack Guard with the cast of Newport Playgoers’ presentation of The Caretaker, James Reynolds, Chris Bissex-Williams and Ryan Salter. Photo by Andy Howells

What do you hope people take away from The Caretaker?

Well, I think it’s a very thought-provoking play. it’s about loneliness and destitution, poor people trying to find a home. It’s still completely relevant to today’s society and people recognise that when they come and see the play. The end of the play is very sad, but there’s also a lot of humour. People will enjoy it; they will laugh, but by the end of the play they’ll be feeling heartbroken, I hope.

Chris, I hope The Caretaker goes well for you all and that this is not your last role on the Dolman Theatre stage. I always enjoy seeing your performances as you always add extra sparkle to productions. So, please do keep considering roles when they come up!

Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say.

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