Pinter is a hallowed name in theatre, one regularly followed by “oohs” and “I need to go see that production.” The Homecoming at the Young Vic has been no different; on three separate occasions friends and acquaintances told me they have their tickets eagerly booked. One of whom admitted it was less Pinter and more Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole that brought them there, but I digress.
Centring around themes of male loneliness, power structures and heterosexual gender roles, Pinter’s 1965 play text takes place entirely within a North London flat and offers an intriguing glimpse at patriarchal family dynamics. The troubled father, Max, lives with his brother and two sons in a home filled with cigarette smoke and butting heads. It is the ‘homecoming’ of Max’s eldest son, Teddy, and his mystery wife, Ruth, from America that ignites the plot. The Young Vic’s intimate downstairs theatre space is used dynamically in this production, with the audience surrounding three sides of the stage. The proximity to the actors and the well-lit space forces you to confront your fellow viewers as much as the performers, creating a unique sociality to the performance that felt charged given the material’s tense subject matter.
Director Matthew Dunster delivers impressive production quality; the performance is sleek and well staged. This is no surprise, given Dunster’s substantial resume as a playwright and director at some of the U.K.’s leading theatre institutions, such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Admittedly, however, this production tiptoes on the verge of safety, clinging to its source material and perhaps relying too much on the power of Pinter’s partially outdated words. Whilst there is no denying the impact of Pinter on modern playwriting, this production seems to simply reemphasise a modernist, and dare I say repetitive, style of theatre that has come to be the norm of London’s stages. It is a style with merit, finely executed at the Young Vic here, but equally one which brings with it an inaccessible cloud that incongruently looms over the class-based social circumstances of the play’s leads.
Despite thematic hiccups, the play is impressively acted. Jared Harris is a beautifully multifaceted Max; his roaring abuse is as loud as it is weak, laced with a call for pity that is never answered by his dually resentful and nonchalant sons. The introduction of his eldest son, Teddy, comes with an excellent naturality and dangerous vulnerability, which Robert Emms portrays well through repeated switches from nervousness to malice. Joe Cole gauged his performance of Lenny with skill and control, consistently unreadable yet emotionally present. Cole’s Lenny possesses the type of confidence that means he never needs to raise his voice, unlike his father, and spends much of his time onstage simply reading the closest thing to him. Lenny’s power is unmissable, yet his most lethal act? A soft kiss upon Ruth’s lips that shifts the course of the play.
The only character who threatens to match Lenny’s self-assured stance or intellect is Ruth, played by Lisa Diveney. She struts the stage as if on the hunt for prey, yet the motive behind this portrayal of extreme female sexuality never quite becomes clear. I accept this as an issue derived in Pinter’s text rather than this production alone, yet Dunster doesn’t seem to have taken many steps to develop this gendered angle. After all, whilst Pinter’s status as a fetishist or feminist remains up for debate, Diveney’s latex boots don’t do much to uphold the latter argument. Unfortunately for the director, the flawed post-feminist model of women’s sexual-labour-as-liberation is tiring fast, and consequently even modern contextualisation cannot save this undeveloped female figure. Slightly un-inspiringly, Ruth remains Pinter’s prowling plot point more than a character of coherent complexity.
Complexity was far better developed in terms of humour; darkness was met with witty remarks, directed beautifully to keep the play tonally on track. Nicolas Tennant’s line delivery as Uncle Sam was an audience favourite, drawing on Pinter’s characteristically long pauses to present physical comedy at its finest. The bouncy argumentative dialogue between Max and Sam was a triumph of stage direction and delivery, resulting in some of the most morally conflicting but effective laughs of the evening. The incorporation of light jazz further encapsulated the play’s classical yet bouncy approach to the deep subject matter, and set an atmospheric backdrop to the proceedings.
Another vigorous performance was delivered by the cast’s lungs, a team that will be dealing with two hours’ worth of chain-smoked cigarettes and cigars every night until January 27th.
The Homecoming at the Young Vic is truly worth watching for the performances of a talented cast, but I would be hesitant to recommend it as an evening of anything thematically fresh. Therein lies the shortcoming of this highly anticipated production: it stays true to much of the original text, hardly taking it further or letting it soak in. It’s Pinter’s The Homecoming as read on the page, set alongside glossy staging at the darling venue of the Young Vic. Bar the impressive set and mighty acting chops, I’m left wondering what exactly this new production brings to the table.
The Homecoming is at the Young Vic Theatre until 27 January 2024. www.youngvic.org
Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.