The Homecoming - Lyttelton 1997

Programme Cover

The Homecoming, Lyttelton Theatre, London, April 1997

Max - David Bradley
Lenny - Michael Sheen
Sam - Sam Kelly
Joey - Eddie Marsan
Teddy - Keith Allen
Ruth - Lindsay Duncan

Directed by Roger Mitchell
Designer - William Dudley
Lighting - Hugh Vanstone
Company Voice Work - Patsy Rodenburg
Sound - Christopher Shutt

Homecoming truths
by John Peter
Ibsen knew that people were different at night. The Grim Old Grouser was quite put out when anyone failed to understand this. Do you mean, he said to an acquaintance, that you didnít know that people actually spoke differently, used different words at night?
No playwright understands this better than Harold Pinter. In the modern theatre he is the great dramatist of the nocturnal. The greater part of most of his plays takes place at night or in the small hours. This is when people are at their most vulnerable and aggressive. This is when wounds reopen and grievances fester; this is when your eyes go glassy with compulsive introspection, when self-pity flourishes and insecurity deepens. This is the world of The Homecoming, (Lyttelton).
William Dudleyís set shows the cavernous living room of a north London house. Through gauze partitions you can see the kitchen on the left and bedrooms upstairs. I think this is a mistake. Pinterís plays are usually set in a single, constricted space: open this up and you weaken its cruel, hypnotic focus. The furniture of this living room is prosperous old-fashioned working class (we are in the mid-1960s). Max, a retired butcher and widower and his sons, Joey the demolition worker and aspiring boxer, and Lenny the pimp, are on terms of intimate mutual loathing. Maxís brother Sam (Sam Kelly), a dainty, house-proud little man, is a driver (Humber Super Snipe). The air is heavy with unspoken resentments ñ as if the ones that were spoken were not enough.
This was once Max and Samís motherís house. Max now cooks for everyone. He hates being mother, but that is really what he is. This is matriarchal society writ small, but with the matriarch missing. When Max calls Lenny a bitch he does not mean anything, you know, queer: he simply resents being deprived of a woman to run his house, and this makes him feel downgraded and therefore emasculated. Now his eldest son, Teddy, a philosophy professor (Keith Allen), arrives unannounced from America in the middle of the night, with a wife the family never knew he had. Once again, there is a woman in the house.
The Homecoming has been described as being essentially a Jewish family play. This is both more and less than the truth, and in any case reminds me of Saul Bellowís remark when he told an interviewer that he did not like being regarded as literatureís equivalent of the garment industry. In Pinterís case the occasional East-End Jewish locutions of the dialogue are little more than geographical signposts. What is so profoundly unsettling about the play is its claustrophobia and its sense of family tyranny, which swallows up or casts out is members. This may have its roots in Jewish experience; but to call The Homecoming a Jewish play is like summing up Ibsen's Ghosts as a Norwegian play.
The Homecoming is about the family as predator. More specifically, it is about men dependent on their macho image for self-assurance and even more dependent on a powerful woman for social and emotional security. Remove that woman and the men are lost: they can only express themselves in brutalityÝ and hunger. Max and his two younger sons possess a maleness without masculinity. To them a woman is a sexual-social status symbol rather than a sexual-emotional partner. For the same reason, their violence is not a matter of purposeful attack, still less defence, but a show of superiority and a reassurance of male status. You have to be seen to be a man. David Bradley plays Max like a castrated wolf emaciated by anger and malevolence. This is a great, gnarled performance which makes grisly aggressiveness and self-righteousness vulgarity hideously fascinating. That does not mean that Bradley patronises Max or makes him colourful, like some evil Alf Garnett: he portrays the animal in the man, hungry, loathsome and pitiful.
Lenny is usually played as sleek, aggressive and dangerous. Michael Sheen presents a lean, impish, slightly scruffy figure, sly and devious, with bright button eyes, always ready for a smile, but also on the lookout for enemy attack which he must be ready to evade. But the cockiness is all on the surface. Sheenís Lenny is as insecure as his father. This comes out in his stories of violence against women which, you sense, were probably bred in his still adolescent imagination. The youngest brother Joey (Eddie Marsan), is the most macho but also the most docile. Show him a woman he thinks is available and he lurches at her, zombie-like, rubbing himself obscenely against her thigh; but let the woman become a powerful mother figure and he will fetch and carry like an anxious servant.
Roger Mitchellís production is dark, stark and precise. The characters may be hollow with insecurity, but they lunge and stumble purposefully towards their destinies. Your sense of shock and discomfort grows as they seem to split open their guts and spill their animal secrets before you. To these men, Teddyís wife Ruth is both a threat and a salvation. Her sexuality is threatening because it is both explicit and impersonal. It is an attribute of hers rather than part of her as a person. The men have met their match: Ruth regards them as commodities, accessories, sources of power and convenience, precisely as they regard her. This family needs this woman to regain its monstrous equilibrium. To such primitive men, a woman is part mother, part whore; and in the closing scenes, which are among the saddest, bleakest and most shocking in theatre, she embarks coldly on satisfying both needs and liberating herself into captivity.
Lindsay Duncanís performance is the finest I have ever seen her give: a scorching portrayal of coldness, a passionate portrayal of calculation. There is a spellbinding moment when she sits still, eyes half-closed, mesmerised by her own almost forgotten and newly rediscovered self: the woman who could give pleasure without needing any, and who had the power to make men feel masculine while regarding them, indulgently but remorselessly, as necessary objects. And so Duncanís Ruth finds herself again an d relaxes into her own kind of womanliness, which is expected of her and which she desires: a combination of servitude and command, which is her status symbol and psychological babysitter for men with a thwarted sexuality. This is the true homecoming of the title.
This is one of Pinterís greatest plays. It is about men who were born into an oppressively claustrophobic family culture but who are both motherless and fatherless. There is more than a hint in the text that Max is not the father of his sons: that they were conceived when he was scouring the country enlarging his butcherís business. The symbolism of this is oblique but deadly. Max and his sons are each otherís sterile and resentful underlings. Such men live by exploitation and by violence, real or imaginary; and their needs are impersonal and brutish. Both the play and Mitchellís production have an intensity and a savagery, made more shocking by the brutal humour of the writing, that have the power of an anthropologicalÝ thriller or a political nightmare. What are instincts, really? Who holds power, and what for? You realise what Teddy means when he tries to explain to Lenny, shortly before returning to America, the difference between operating on things and operating in things, and how you should try to balance the two.
Lenny must now break free again because he himself understands his brother all too well. There is a degree of family possessiveness which can only express itself as exploitation. Freedom is to have nothing. To understand this tremendous play, you need a brave imagination and nerves of steel.
The Sunday Times, 26 January 1997

Review by Michael Billington
Audience coughing, says Harold Pointer, is an act of aggression. But, after begin greeted by one of the most bad-mannered bronchial barrages I have ever heard in any theatre, Roger Mitchell's revival of The Homecoming at the National finally reduced the audience to pin-drop silence; which ways something for the power of this extraordinary play and the quality of the production. Mitchell's version differs in several key ways from Peter Hall's legendary original, most particularly in the domestic realism of William Dudley's design. For once we see, through translucent walls, every room in the cavernous north London home to which Teddy returns, en route back to American academia, with his wife Ruth. We actually hear the night-time snores of the dozing family predators and we later see Uncle Sam pottering about in the kitchen and grating on the nerves of his brother Max. But Mitchell's most original stroke lies in his interpretation of Ruth, who famously opts to stay with the family and, possibly, work as a prostitute. Is she exploited victim or arch-manipulator? In Lindsay Duncan's magnetic performance, you certainly feel Ruth has the men in the play under her control But Duncan gives you the impression that Ruth is not so much executing a master-plan as undergoing a voyage of self-discovery; that she gradually realises her natural home lies in this jungle. Above all, Duncan implies that Ruth is nursing some secret sadness and is possibly recovering from a breakdown. She eventually discovers, as she cradles the heads of Joey and Max, a temporary salvation and peace. But, even if this version lays stress on Ruth's redemption, it does full justice to Pinter's brutal comedy . In particularly there is a stunning performance as Mans from David Bradley, who plays him as a scraggy bullying patriarch who can turn in a split-second from dreamy nostalgia to bilious rage. And, even if I have seen more insufferable patronising Teddy's that Keith Allen, this is till a gripping evening that reminds you that Pinter's play operates on any number of levels; as realistic drama, family comedy and mythical study of female empowerment. It is done here with a savage skill that finally puts the nails in the coughing.
The Guardian24 January 1997

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