The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Tuesday 2nd August, 2011
One of Pinter’s finest and most typically Pinteresque plays, The Homecoming as performed here by the RSC is a lesson in how to do Pinter properly. Not that this is anything akin to a dry lecture, the like of which I was wont to give, make no mistake, this is a thoroughly entertaining evening at the theatre.
Pinter gives us little by way of exposition. Rather we are invited to find out for ourselves, like looking at a family photo album in a fog. Aspects of their history and their present situation come in and out of focus and the audience pieces together its own interpretation. As the situation unfolds and details are revealed or, as often happens, are hinted at, the thinking behind the design concept for this production becomes apparent. Head of the household Max is a former butcher. He is a volatile, sentimental bully who carries his walking stick more as a weapon and symbol of his authority than as an aid to mobility. His house is all deep reds and browns, the colours of dried blood. His armchair, his seat of power, is the most vivid scarlet. From here he issues edicts and spouts monologues of embittered reminiscence, keeping his three sons and his brother in line. He is a tyrant.
Upstage is the house’s hallway with staircase and front door. A row of leather coats hang like carcasses on actual meat hooks, calling to mind Max’s previous occupation but also symbolising how much he has his hooks into his family. For all their arguments and complaints, his sons show no intention of leaving, even though they are each financially capable. In fact, the eldest son returns to the fold, giving us the homecoming of the title, bringing his wife of six years (they have been married for six years, I mean. She is not a child!). The arrival of this newcomer is the spanner in the works. She is a cool customer and very easily and accurately gets the measure of her brothers-in-law. She accepts their offer of a flat near Greek Street, where she will earn her keep a couple of hours a night. In fact she takes charge of the negotiations, from Max’s throne. Her husband, reluctant at first to leave without her, is drawn back in to the family’s skewed sense of loyalty and morality, and appears quite happy to leave her behind. He returns to his own three sons, (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeats the pattern of his own childhood with them.)
Max, dethroned, suffers a debilitating stroke and is left to scrabble around on the dry blood carpet. The old order has been usurped. Ruth nestles the head of youngest brother-in-law Joey in her lap. Her new pimp, Lenny, looks on, while his father’s cries go unheeded. The play is as old as am I but retains the power to amuse and to shock. The Swan Theatre’s thrust stage afforded me full view of faces in the audience opposite, and they were laughing out loud and gasping, flinching and grinning at every turn at these Londoners at each other’s throats. This is how EastEnders should have been!
Ruth is wife, mother and whore but also she is now Queen. Played with haughtiness and knowingness by Aislin McGuckin, she is the perfect counterpoint to the hot-headed men. Jonathan Slinger as effeminate but violent pimp Lenny gives a measured performance that I preferred to his expectorating declamations as Macbeth, and Richard Riddell gives sturdy support as would-be pugilist Joey, managing to appear both little-boy-lost and brooding Neanderthal at the same time. But the night belongs to diminutive actor Nicholas Woodeson who gives a towering performance in flat cap and cardigan as the despotic Max.