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Production: The Homecoming
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Damian Cruden, in plucking a glittering star out of the firmament, has had his hands terribly burned. Our artistic director's announcement that The Homecoming was going to be staged at the Theatre Royal, made within days of Pinter's death last Christmas Eve, struck me immediately as a cringingly obvious move, a distasteful venture designed to cash in on a famous corpse. I had no idea that the production itself would transpire to be the most tarry-fingered piece of tomb raiding since Lord Carnarvon's day. All artistic larceny, the misuse of any halfway decent work, is unfortunate; the bastardisation of beauty on this scale amounts to a sort of crime against morality. I speak forcefully, but I fear with a degree of justification. This staging was a wayward tribute that befitted a pauper rather than a prince, and a complete waste of time. Of course one had to be listening very carefully, (the banging seats of the departed were a distraction) but from the back of the dress circle it was possible to hear a playwright slowly turning in his grave.
A taut, figurative tale of male barbarism and female emancipation, The Homecoming is the best play by the greatest of all modern playwrights, which makes having to write this review doubly troubling. For the benefit of those not intimately familiar, (excuse the hyperbole but like Hamlet and Inspector Morse, you don't watch this stuff, you live it) it tells of a prodigal son's return; Teddy is a doctor of philosophy at an American university, who comes home with his wife Ruth after an absence of some years. The reason for his seemingly self-motivated exile is elusive, but we assume it has something to do with a communication breakdown with his hardy, alpha-male father, Max, and his younger brother, the streetwise wannabe pimp, Lenny. A third brother, a shying simpleton named Joey and an uncle, camp-as-a-row-of-tents and called Sam, complete the dramatis personae. In the bleak, male-oriented domesticity of the familial living room, (closely resembling the Hackney of Pinter's formative years) a savage, seriocomic power-play ensues from this unhappiest of reunions that revolves around the seductive Ruth: who will gain control over her, and to what end? Or is hers the hand, unlikely as it seems, that ultimately rocks the cradle?
Done well, The Homecoming is still as relevant and thrilling as the day it was finished, arguably more so. What a pity, then: with the notable exception of the excellent Suzy Cooper (fittingly enough the stand-out turn, given that this is Ruth's play) each actor was guilty of a casual sloppiness that threatened to undermine every moment of import. Simple blocking went awry, scuppering the staging's poise and balance. Lines were fluffed, fumbled and, horror of horrors, ad-libbed. Call me pedant, but given that these were professionals, I found this unacceptable. The worst culprit of this latter felony was Sam Hazeldine, (a lamentably feeble, almost at times lachrymose Lenny) who, with a perverse wilfulness that baffles me still, improvised whole sections of dialogue. Mr. Hazeldine, I must sadly report, is not the master of contemporary idiom that Mr. Pinter was, and living proof that even RADA drops a clanger or two. His random effusions were as brainless as they were impotent, blunting the scalpel-fine edge of Pinter's unique diction. Overall, the tenor of the piece was flat and far too plausible, as dangerous as Alan Ayckbourn experimenting with naughty language and even naughtier sex. Why was there exuberant jazz playing between scenes, murdering the tension? Why were the characters made to placate, rather than aggressively accuse? Why, oh why break a butterfly on a wheel?
It wasn't all bad. Suzy Cooper was a provocative, strutting and sexily territorial Ruth and Dawn Allsopp's set design (although somewhat after Peter Hall) was meticulously done. If anything, this production showed The Homecoming as the modern wonder that it is by exposing its enigmatical character. The peculiarly pleasing, dissonant rhythms and screaming silences which famously serve to characterise and punctuate its dialogue are as rare as solar eclipses and just as stupefying: the actor taking them on is burdened with a weighty task. However, this writer was painfully aware that Cruden and his cast were wholly unequal to such demands, and left the theatre with a burning desire that justice somehow should be done. How could this have been allowed to happen?
The Homecoming is showing at York Theatre Royal until 20th June.