Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Flies buzz with menacing fury through the Swan Theatre sound system. Four angled, unconnected blades of cold white light pierce the blackness, tracing the partial schematic of a North London house. It is 1960s Britain. Outside, the world struggles with the intensity of the Vietnam War, conflict between India and Pakistan, and civil rights confrontation in Alabama. Inside, blood red light oozes over an embattled world in microcosm. Testosterone and violence seep through the floorboards. A large grubby red carpet focuses the eye and mind on a scene of oppressive malice and isolation.
Upstage right, the ubiquitous suburban front door, complete with leaded light window, offers the hope of escape. Beside it, a row of coat hooks that seamlessly morphs into a butchers rail. This innocuous structure accommodates vicious meat-hooks that clutch the stiffened remains of past butchering. Aprons and overalls, caked with decades of congealed blood, hang as visual reminders of the family business. Beneath one, a bucket stands open-mouthed, hungrily awaiting its bloody meal. Long dried solid, the apron above offers nothing in return.
A steep, double staircase leads to the upper levels of the house. Beneath, a stage left door passes to an unseen though noisily-heard kitchen, and to Lennys bedroom-cum-workroom-cum-study. Onstage, a dishevelled sideboard, where generations might store their family treasures, offers space for glasses and water jug. That modern convenience, the gramophone, competes with the dresser in size and importance. A couple of dining chairs, a side table and magazine rack, complete the family home. That is, all except the red armchair of Max, patriarch and ex-butcher, who commands his boys even in his absence.
We are introduced to Lenny (Jonathan Slinger) and Max (Nicholas Woodeson). Son and father. Combative, manipulative Max, a diminutive figure who wields his walking stick as a weapon. Cold, dapper Lenny, whose malice bubbles beneath the surface with psychopathic fury. They spar, they verbally abuse, and just as Maxs stick seems destined to connect with his sons head, Lenny resorts to emotional blackmail. Voicing his fear like a six-year-old trying to escape another beating, Lenny confuses his father. Abuse, physical and mental, seems everyday in this nightmare home.
Lenny and Max are not alone. Here also lives the young son Joey (Richard Riddell) and Maxs brother, Sam (Des McAleer). Joey is an aspiring boxer. All beef and brawn. Sam, in contrast, seems decidedly normal. An ageing chauffeur who prides himself on his appearance and demeanour. Sam has never married. Sams lack of spouse provides his brother, the vicious Max, with ample opportunity to imply a certain effeminacy, a certain willingness to commit unspeakable acts on Blackfriars Bridge.
Sam carries a secret that only death will reveal. It involves Maxs late wife, the unseen, oft-referenced Jessie, whose death is never explained but whose absence accounts for the phallocentric mania of her brood. Perhaps the fireplace hearth, represented on the forestage as a grave-like rectangle of disturbed black rubble, offers a hint at Jessies demise and whereabouts?
Into this dysfunctional family unit arrives Teddy (Justin Salinger), and his wife of six years, Ruth (Aislín McGuckin). Teddy has a PhD. Teddy is a university lecturer in the USA. Teddy has three sons of his own. Teddy, so it appears, has Ruth. Teddy has returned. It is Teddys Homecoming. Or is it?
In this dark and fascinating play, Harold Pinter dangles so many blood-red herrings in front of our noses, it is difficult to pinpoint any specific moments of revelation. What is obvious is that Ruth has a past. A past closely related to the North London to which her husband returns. Ruth might appear a flame-haired Jackie Kennedy on the outside, but inside, she is as much a fighter, or a failed fighter, as young Joey.
Ruths presence is the catalyst for more family feuding, more male posturing, as father and sons vie for her attention. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Ruth adopts the role of mother and whore. She dismisses her ineffectual husband and offspring and takes up residence in house, in lusting hearts, and in Maxs patriarchal chair. At the moment Ruth agrees to sexual slavery under the control of her manipulative in-laws, she also discovers an empowerment that is shocking and overwhelming.
Jon Bausors design encapsulates the menacing threat of this homecoming, whilst David Farr deftly directs an inspired cast. The erotic charge between Slingers Lenny and McGuckins Ruth. The mindless lust and childish possessiveness of Riddells Joey. The impotent suavity of Salingers Teddy, balanced by McAleers equally impotent Sam. The bombastic savagery of Woodesons Max. All coalesce to create an evening of shock and sex and savagery, and bitter, bitter humour.
The Homecoming might have been Sir Peter Halls personal choice for the RSCs Aldwych season of 1965. This fine production demonstrates not only this choices validity, but also the bravery of those who, when the world seemed lost in political and military conflict, recognised the theatrical power of Pinters domestic dystopia. The Homecoming raises questions about families and male attitudes to women. It offers no answers. In exploring these volatile issues, it does offer a surprisingly entertaining, often outright hilarious vision of dysfunctionality.
Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby