English trip: The Homecoming

 London F17

I must confess a real partiality for The Homecoming by Harold Pinter which was first performed in 1964. “It captures (the) imagination” to misquote only slightly a remark made by Ruth as she effortlessly hi-jacks the conversation from the men: already proving her power over them. Thus it came about that a 60 strong group descended on Trafalgar Studios as Storm Imogen did her worst.

Ruth was well-played by Gemma Chan. Chan understands the glacial self-possession the character must display. ‘Inscrutable’ might seem a lazy adjective for me to employ but it is the only one that fits. This production also conveyed better than others I have seen just how insufferable is her husband Teddy and how her decision to stay on as a prostitute working for his father and brothers actually makes sense; though I imagine its first audiences might have seen it as a belated example of the Theatre of the Absurd.

The bar like structures in this spectacular revival of The Homecoming invoked the way the characters are claustrophobically stuck in a past they can only ever repeat: as Teddy notes, “the original structure was unaffected” and that surely is why he should never have risked a homecoming because as soon as he re-enters the orbit of the North London home he is sapped of whatever psychic power he dreamed he had over his butcher father, Max, the middle brother Lenny (also a dealer in flesh and working out of Greek Street) and his younger brother Joey whose life is devoted to destruction such that he works days in demolition and nights as a boxer. If Teddy wanted to lord it over them, it is they who gain the upper hand over him just as surely as Emma gains the upper hand over all the family members. We should never see Teddy as the victim therefore; he intends his homecoming as an assertion of power and his siblings and father can hardly be blamed for turning the tables on him.

These structures were also reminiscent of some of Francis Bacon’s paintings which though painted a little earlier in the century have the same preoccupation with primitivism as Pinter’s play: “she’ll make us all animals”, says Max, but the play implies that such a metamorphosis was always unnecessary. The blood red flooring which looked initially like a neglected Axminster, discoloured by the ash of tens of thousands of cigarettes, is in the end a killing floor, a slaughter house yard again reminiscent of Bacon.

My only reservations were that Joey was woodenly played for laughs and that the tradition of playing Sam as ‘camp’ which begins with the 1968 film version misses the point that he had an affair with Jesse before being superseded by Mac; begging the question which son is Max’s, which Mac’s? and which Sam’s?  

That ‘Mac’ is a prefix meaning ‘son of’ confirms the play’s focus on paternity and its anxieties. Still the decision to shoe both Sam and Teddy in suede told its own story of their kinship and aspirations which of course makes the moment they share so poignant since it seemingly goes unnoticed by Teddy who can only lament that the death of his ‘uncle’ precludes the latter taking him to the airport for a homecoming to which the audience is not privy. The homecoming we realise we have been watching is of course Ruth’s.     

Richard Martin