It has taken some time for this production by the Gate Theatre in Dublin, which has been part of the Lincoln Center Theatre season of Pinter plays in New York, to make it to the London stage. Most of the hiccups are the result of Ian Holm's need to recover from a minor operation.
The wait has been worthwhile since Holm is the star of Robin Lefevre's excellent production. He plays Max, the patriarch of a west London family that has generally produced minor gangsters with the single exception of his eldest son, Teddy. Nick Dunning plays Teddy who has taken his PhD to the United States, possibly to escape from his not very reputable family. Holm produces a combination of aggression, frustration and quirkiness that is fully believable and really brings his character to life.
The play commences with some knockabout humour but Max and one of his sons, Lenny (played by Ian Hart) have a robust discussion in which the love that they feel for each other is well masked by a verbal battle. It soon becomes apparent that this is the normal mode of conversation in this strange family.
The relatively happy, if constantly moaning, household of four men is soon invaded by Teddy, returning from the United States for the first time in six years and bringing with him the wife that he married the day before he left. She is a sophisticated ex-model, played beautifully by Lia Williams. Williams manages to combine a breathy sexiness with cool detachment. The part that she plays is by no means easy and the London stage has been exceptionally lucky to see Lindsey Duncan and Lia Williams playing Ruth in recent times. Each of them handles well the combination of boldness and shame that Ruth embodies.
The set designed by Eileen Diss works perfectly. It is the type of sitting room that was common in the early 1960s. It is a combination of shabby browns that the smoking of four men over a period of time will create. This is the perfect introduction to the two generations of bickering men.
The first half of the play is very naturalistic and typical of Pinter. There is much jockeying for position and the most common form of endearment in this family is the insult. All seem taken aback by their introduction to the sophisticated Ruth. As always with Pinter, the repetition and the pauses are as important as the words that are said.
After the interval, the whole world is turned upside down. The shy, demure Ruth who has already been accused of having the instincts of a slut becomes one. She sleeps with her brothers in law and seemingly with the approval of her husband, agrees to stay behind when he returns to his professorship in America.
Clearly, Pinter is making some substantial statements when he depicts Ruth's sudden decline into the pit. There had already been dark murmurings from her husband that all was not well with the mother of his three children. In fact, the game that Pinter seems to be playing is with power. By the end of the play, there is a question as to whether the almost enslaved Ruth is the powerless prisoner of the family or whether she has taken the reins and is in control.
Robin Lefevre has produced a very good production which is characterised by the economy of movement of his cast. In particular, during some of the key scenes, we see one person talking while everyone else on the stage does statue impressions. This is very effective. He is greatly assisted by a strong cast, with particularly good performances from Ian Holm as the slightly mad Max, Lia Williams and Ian Hart. This has been a very good year for Harold Pinter and it is to be hoped that even more of the Lincoln Center plays will come to London.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher