York Theatre Royal
Review by Hannah Davies
Doctor of Philosophy Teddy returns home from America to a rigid and violent all male household. He brings with him Ruth, his wife of six years, to meet his working class father, two brothers and uncle at their North London home. At the end of the play the family offer Ruth a chance to exchange the aridity of the 'rocks and desert' of her respectable life as the wife of an academic, for a somewhat more unorthodox existence with them.
It is easy to see why The Homecoming secured its place in history as one of the modern masterpieces of the twentieth century. The play has continued to spark furious debate and controversy since its premiere in the mid 1960s and the writing retains its compelling mysterious and darkly symbolic qualities.
Pinter's writing can never be said to be traditional in terms of providing his audience with absolute facts on the characters' past or inner lives and The Homecoming adheres to this ambiguity. Most alarming to Pinter's early critics is the legendary second act which many claim lacks credibility. It is this second half's shocking content that has inspired an array of differing interpretations.
The underlying menace and power of Pinter's words are captured rigorously in this production. The opening exchanges between Max (Paul Shelley), Lenny (Sam Hazeldine), and Sam (Robert Pickavance) are well timed, precise and intense. This competent cast grapples with the ferocious brutality that underlies the action of the play with an admirable ease.
The return home of Teddy (Ian Harris) and Ruth (Suzy Cooper) upsets the balance of the male hierarchy that dominates the household. It is Ruth's intoxicating presence that extracts from the men around her the deep-seated misogyny, grief and violent sexual aggression that dictates the events of the rest of the play. Ruth is a constant reminder of the dead mother of the family whose absence has been recorded in the fabric of the house itself by the removal of an interior wall shortly after her death.
It is unfortunate that the early interactions of husband and wife are handled rather clumsily by Harris, as is Teddy's progression to a resigned haughtiness at the end of the second act. Cooper's Ruth oozes a playfully fresh sensuality but she lacks a stillness and maturity, her sustained petulance neutralising the pointed moment of choice she reaches at the end of the play.
Lenny (Sam Hazeldine) brings a humorous angry cockiness to the stage but struggles to find the more sinister tones the character might require to really soar. Max (Paul Shelley) is the kingpin of this production and Shelly expertly juggles the alpha male's wild oscillations between violent rage and over-sentimentalisation.
The play unfolds entirely in the front room of the old family home and the set design (Dawn Allsop) thrusts the off-centre world of the characters out into the audience. The skewed perspective of this chintzy vintage space is framed with a faded gilt edging. There are tell-tale wounds where the absent wall once stood, and this roughshod, half-finished feel, with the naked plaster still visible, adds to the cruel comfortless feel of the men's home.
Damian Cruden's direction of what Pinter himself regarded as one of his best plays is thorough and often potent. The catalytic scene in which Ruth accepts her brother-in-law's invitation to dance rather than comply with her husband's insistence that she put on her coat, is taut and lyrical. Cruden's closing tableau holds a soothingly spooky feminine calmness that is worlds away from the opening lines of the play. The scene in which Lenny attempts to relieve Ruth of a glass of water is appropriately menacing but its notorious payoff could be heightened with a simpler staging.
Although this production may benefit from some fine tuning, it does Pinter's complex and menacing play wonderful justice and is essential viewing.