In the aftermath of the UK riots last night, where the realms of authority were exchanged and tested, Zainab Rahim looks at another kind of battle for power in ‘The Homecoming.’
By Zainab Rahim
At just eighteen years old, Harold Pinter was a man with a growing consciousness, keenly aware of his own moral compass in the midst of a complex society.
It was 1948 and he was called forward by the National Service. He refused. Instead he registered himself as a conscientious objector and went to court declaring that: “[it is] completely beyond my human understanding and my moral conception” to join “an organisation whose main purpose is mass murder.”
And moral conception in human nature is exactly what frames Pinter’s play, The Homecoming. It experiments with limits and features characters who push all possible boundaries well over the edge, resulting in a scenario that reflects a disturbing, lost and unscrupulous society. The RSC production of The Homecoming, directed by David Farr, opens at the Swan Theatre almost half a century after Peter Hall first brought the play to the stage at the Aldwych Theatre in 1965 to a sea of horrified critics.
The play, written and set in the 1960s, tells the story of a man called Teddy (Justin Salinger) who returns home to his close-knit male family in London – all single – after six years of teaching Philosophy in America. He brings back his alluring wife, Ruth (Aislín McGuckin), for the first time and the men pour over her both hungrily and cautiously. In response, Ruth forms an eerily comfortable relationship with each of the men where a play of power commences.
We are introduced to Teddy’s father, Max (Nicholas Woodeson), early in the action. Despite being comic in his boisterous rudeness towards his family, he is also pitiful in the moments when his son Lenny (Jonathan Slinger) tortures him, riddling his psyche with a forced nostalgia: “The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it?”
In fact, memories haunt every line of the dialogue, with an effective host of long silences in between. There is so much the audience does not know. The thrust stage appropriately positions the audience directly around this; eavesdroppers into the secret exchanges. The production shifts between the hilarious and uncomfortable. Every phrase sounds forced; the description of the ticking of a clock, of going to bed, of giving out a cup of coffee, of losing a sandwich, is uttered firmly and carefully.
There is also a considerable void of trust and natural emotion. The conversations are underpinned by constant tension, switching between the personal and impersonal, the dramatic and tedious.
All the scenes take place in the central living room, which is bathed in a deep hue of stained redness reflected in Max’s sofa and the large carpet. Designer Jon Bausor paints the background with a semi-gothic feel. There is a frequent haze from cigarette smoke and a Victorian-esque coat hanger, dark staircase and warm yellow lamps.
Actress McGuckin presents Ruth in picture-perfect sweetness wearing a seductive, though distressingly deranged, expression. Introduced to the house in the middle of the night, Ruth appears at the foot of the stairs in a neat mac, a scarf covering her faultlessly quiffed 60s hairdo, and later, in silky dresses; a stark contrast to the pyjamas of her working class in-laws.
The men each occupy distant corners of the stage, Ruth floating between them effortlessly, only coming together to express the most violent and the most sexual of acts embodied in Max’s spitting and Ruth’s promiscuity. The brothers are fittingly creepy. Slinger succeeds in portraying a sinister Lenny, and Richard Riddell illustrates an appropriately expressionless, yet twitchy, Joey.
The ideologies behind the psychologies of the characters are undefinable. The conception of a marriage and family unit slowly disintegrates before our eyes as characters come closer to their troubling ends. Though Ruth is at the centre of sexual use and a business prospect, she hardly comes across as a victim, being a scheming and exploitative character.
The RSC presents a production suitable only for adult viewing, brilliant only in its suffocation. This is largely down to Pinter’s original story, which offers no code of morality and little escape from the nauseating male-dominated society it presents.
It is certainly unsurprising that Pinter was accused of misogyny in his lifetime. But it stands truer, rather, that he was fully aware of the power games played through language, most aptly played out in The Homecoming and most passionately expressed in his political activism. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he criticised the US and British government declaring:
“What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days – conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead?”
And so conscience dissipates in Teddy’s old living room and, for Pinter, in the very harsh realities of the modern age.
The Homecoming is running at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 15th October 2011. The RSC is holding two events to commemorate the work of Harold Pinter in October.
Zainab Rahim is the Chief Editor of The Platform.
Photo credits: Manuel Harlan. Copyrights: RSC. Pictured: Justin Salinger (Teddy) and Aislin McGuckin (Ruth) in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming
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