On the day when the National Theatre announced that its artistic directorship will pass in eighteen months to the man, as Ken Campbell put it, "who'll do the same best", one of Nicholas Hytner's predecessors in that post, Sir Peter Hall, was revisiting as an audience member one of his early triumphs. The Gate Theatre of Dublin's wonderful production of Pinter's The Homecoming, rightly praised by Alastair Macaulay in the FT in June, has arrived in London at the Comedy Theatre.
Reviews of the Dublin run of Michael Colgan's production have made much of Ian Holm's portrayal of north London patriarch Max not as a domestic tyrant but as an elderly man kicking against the pricks of his inevitable decline and eclipse. Max's acuity is still evident, whereas his attempts to wield his walking-stick as a rod of iron cow no-one in the family. The moments of eerie, menacing calm which do descend come when he or Lenny refers to his relationship with his sons during their childhood: mention of bath-time activities or "a cuddle and a kiss" lead at a minimum to the exchange of significant glances, and often to an outright freeze as the reality behind the bland phrases is relived by all concerned. Whether or not such an element was explicitly intended when Pinter wrote the play, it is impossible to escape now, and Colgan integrates it in a perfectly Pinterian tone.
The play hinges on a power shift along twin axes, as Ruth, wife of the visiting white sheep of the family Teddy, coolly sloughs off her ties to him to assume, literally, Max's seat of power in the London household. Lia Williams shows Ruth's control in the slow deliberation of her moves and words, whether licking the tumbler she passes to Lenny or extending a stockinged leg mid-sentence for him to contemplate. There is never any question of her assuming the subordinate role that the London men plan for her: from the moment the arrangement is put to her and she attaches her own conditions, Lenny is full of concession and deference rather than any kind of negotiation. At the same time, a sprinkling of remarks about Ruth's health here suggest that her power-play (and, elsewhere, her own compliance) is itself a manifestation of a possible ongoing instability on her part.
There is little contest, though, between the London family and Nick Dunning's snobbish, artificial Teddy. John Kavanagh gives Max's chauffeur brother Sam a finicky precision that leaves us in little doubt what Max intends by the observation "Funny you never married." Ian Hart imbues Lenny (the role taken by Holm on the play's 1965 première) not with brooding menace but rather an overt stoat-like malice which happens never to be followed through.
Pinter's plays are never simply a matter of atmosphere or threat, whether defined or not; the best productions bring out a dynamic and a range of nuance far in excess of the pervasive, sinister basics, and Colgan's is among the very best.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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