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March 20, 2008

The Homecoming is today a different play than it was in 1965 or even in 2001 - David Wootton explains why: Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at the Almeida

Posted by David Wootton

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming
directed by Michael Attenborough
Almeida Theatre, London
31st January - 22nd March 2008

I saw this production the night before press night. Since then I've found my thoughts coming back to it over and over again - I even woke the other night from a dream about it. I've seen the play before - the Dublin Gate Theatre production with Ian Holm as Max which transfered to the Comedy Theatre in London in 2001 - I am astonished it was so long ago, as it seems like yesterday. And I've seen both productions with Alison who saw the very first production and remembers it vividly.

This little intro is in order to get to the point: there is something quite astonishing, mysterious, and wonderful about this production. The mysterious thing is that this felt (to me at least) like a quite different play from the 2001 revival.

I simply couldn't believe on watching it that the script was the same. But it is (although I believe a few swear words have been added). What has changed is simply the direction and the acting, but they have made the most astonishing difference - and the reviewers I have read don't seem to have noticed it has happened.

In the Homecoming Max is a tyrannical father with disturbed children. Teddy, who has emigrated to America, brings home Ruth, his wife. By the end of the play, Ruth has decided to stay with Max and his other two sons, who plan to put her to work as a prostitute - but Max isn't quite clear if she understands what she has agreed to do.

In the 2001 production there was a general air of unspoken menace, of something evil and hidden. Ruth seemed in another world, so one shared Max's uncertainty as to whether she knew what she was doing. In this production, everything has become explicit.

When Max talks about bathing and cuddling his sons we sense he is talking about sexually abusing them. When he hits Lenny and Sam at the end of Act One he does so with great violence. When Ruth agrees to become a prostitute she knows exactly what she is doing - and she knows not in theory, but out of past experience. When she twice uses the word "insects" with a marked enunciation, we can't help but hear "incest". When she twice asks Teddy "Is it dirty here?" we know exactly what she is talking about.

In the 2001 production the nastiness in the play and in the family was hard to pin down; in this production everything has become explicit. The difference depends entirely on gestures, and facial expressions, and tones of voice. And yet the two plays are completely different. I rather doubt that this play - as now performed - could have been staged in 1965 (when the material of the play was topical - there are obvious references to the world of the Kray twins and the Profumo affair; it's tempting to think that Christine Keeler was the inspiration for Ruth). It is as if what we are seeing is the play Pinter would have written if he could have written it. The play has been radically modernised, but at the same time nothing has changed. The remarkable achievement of this production is to rescue the play from being a period drama.

Which is the better play? Which is the better production? I find this a little hard to answer as I loved the menace in the 2001 production, the sense of something evil that couldn't be located, the sense that what was being said concealed something unsaid. This was an atmosphere I recognized and was fascinated to see performed in front of me.

In the new production we know exactly what we are dealing with, and we are much more clearly located in place - Alison has since rewatched the 1973 movie and reports that a key difference is that in this production the accents are consistent and right. Lenny really sounds like an East End gangster and Teddy really sounds like a professor.

A further key difference is that this is a fast-moving version of the play. The running time is two hours including the interval - Pinter's famous pauses have been cut. Instead in this version we are acutely, astonishingly aware of how each character inhabits his or her body. Each one of them moves differently, has a different language of gestures. Each of them is astonishingly physical.

Lenny in particular is an extraordinary triumph of physical menace and inadequacy; a man who beats up women because he can't get it up. Finally, this is a very funny play, fully alert to the ambiguities of the text:

There hasn't been a whore in this house since your mother died
produced a shout of laughter from the audience.

There's a further crucial difference between this production and that of 2001: this time Ruth exercises an extraordinary power over all the men, as she did in the original (and later filmed) production, when she was played by Vivien Merchant, for whom the part was written. She uses few words because she hardly needs any to control their behaviour. She is sexy, very sexy, but intimidating - the speech in which she uses the word "underwear" is literally breathtaking.

Almost the first thing Teddy does in the play is point out to Ruth his father's chair - at the end of the play she is sitting in it, the new head of the household. When the lights go down at the end, the last thing we see is her face, which leaves us with the impression of a triumphant smile, like that of the Cheshire Cat, when everything else is gone. Jenny Jules is simply astonishing. The fact that she is black gives a visual clue to the hostility with which she is greeted, and provides an unpleasant explanation (if that is the word) for the quick assumption that she's a whore, though of course all women in the world of this play are either whores or mothers (or preferably both); the only power positions available to them. It's a brilliant piece of casting. In the original play Ruth is alone in a man's world; in this play she is also alone in a white world. Race reinforces gender, stereotype is layered on stereotype.

All in all, I think this reading of the play is the right reading, and this production a better production. I'm sure it is not the original reading; but I rather think it is what Pinter had in mind from the beginning, and I don't think the play will ever be the same again. Someone really should film it, so that this gestalt switch, when the play is suddenly transformed into something else, can be recorded for posterity.

But I can't help but miss the unspoken, the implicit, the ambiguous tone of the 2001 production (and, I assume, of all previous productions). Because some times what is evil really is hidden and hard to identify - sometimes, but not always, and perhaps even not often.

This production catches both the menace and the laughter of Pinter's extraordinary play. It is a moment in theatre history, and a profound reflection on the differences between our world (where sexual abuse is so openly discussed and freely reported) and the world of 1965 (where it was unspoken, unmentionable, for some even unimaginable).

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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