The power of Harold Pinter to shock and unnerve has clearly not lessened over time. That is the overwhelming impression from the Trafalgar Studios where Jamie Lloyd directs The Homecoming in its 50th anniversary year, providing a sucker punch of intrepidly stylised family warfare and gender politics.
A large part of the production’s intensity comes from Soutra Gilmour’s geometric set, the square sides of a conventional 1960s North London home shrinking ever backwards to the pivotal door through which the family’s eldest son, Ted, returns. The perpetually rocky dynamic of this all-male family is fuelled by latent aggression as they tussle over the position of top dog whilst expressing attitudes to women that will jar with contemporary audiences.
When Ted returns in the dead of night after six years in the States, to introduce his decorous wife Ruth, one genuinely fears for her safety and the reception come morning is duly hostile: “We haven’t had a whore in this house since your mother,” bellows Ron Cook as the relentlessly incensed father of the house, Max, who is dismally acerbic to the last in a performance that glues his clan together with mutual distaste. Ted and his wife appear at first to be more gentrified than the others but, though Ted waxes lyrical about their “stimulating” life centred around his job as a philosophy lecturer, their pent-up frustrations are evident, with Ruth letting out a vast sigh of exasperation and him stuffing his fist in his mouth to stifle his screams once they have given each other some space.
Such fleeting outbursts of emotion are echoed by Richard Howell’s lighting, which flashes between moments of pitch-blackness via ugly red highlights, and then back to gloomy normality. The total darkness between scenes is also accompanied by booming rock ‘n’ roll music from the time, hinting to the frenzied fun and frolics one normally associates with the Sixties and jarring with this dingy, forbidding household.
Things take a weird turn for the worse when a clearly frazzled Ruth, infuriated by her bolshie companions, flirts and makes suggestive movements such as unfolding and refolding her legs. The menacing middle son, Lenny, responds and after enticing Ruth into a slow dance in front of Ted, proceeds to kiss her. From there, the youngest son, Joey, has a go too, which leads to him and Ruth rolling around on the floor whilst the rest of the family look on. Stranger still, the two spend a couple of hours upstairs in a bedroom (followed by a detailed conversation about what did or didn’t go on) and the family, bar Ted, discusses keeping Ruth so that she can work as a prostitute in the daytime to earn her keep whilst providing some ‘companionship’ for them in the evenings. Ruth negotiates her own ‘contract’ in these proceedings and Ted ultimately leaves her with his family to go home to America and their sons.
Until Ted actually leaves her there, you’re never quite sure whether this is being discussed in seriousness or with tongue in cheek – it seems to start out as the latter, with the audience slowly realising that such a surreal conversation might be sincere. And perhaps this is the sort of release that Ruth needs – a former model unfulfilled by life as an intellectual’s wife getting sexual gratification, earning some money, holding her own in a house of men. Maybe this is how she sees it but to the audience it is clear that her perception of liberation is total exploitation by her husband’s relatives. It’s wholly confusing and makes for suitably uncomfortable viewing; no wonder some Pinter theorists suggest the whole thing to be a dream.
As the central character of Ruth, Gemma Chan puts in a generally refined performance, but one wonders if her robotic default from having played the ‘synth’ Anita in Channel 4’s Humans might have caused her to remain a little too stark at times. And in her flirtatious moments, her laboured enunciation makes it sound like she’s doing ‘how now, brown cow’ speech exercises rather than evocatively teasing the men.
John Simm is creepy in the extreme as Lenny due to his ability to speak the mundane with a steady, affable gaze that belies unequivocal malice. As Uncle Sam, the kindliest character by far, Keith Allen brings whiffs of shrewdly timed effeminacy that create the funniest moments in the play without becoming so silly as to write Sam off in pure jest. That is left to Joey, a demolition worker and night-time boxer with few brain cells to spare, played with burly simplicity by John Macmillan.
This version of The Homecoming is a case of style boosting substance rather than clouding it and, just as it should do, a feeling of unease will persist for days after seeing the show – anything less, and it wouldn’t do Pinter any justice at all.
The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY, until 13th February 2016. For more information and to book tickets visit the website.