Despite shifts in the moral, social, and political climate since 1964, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming remains a challenging work of theatre. It is complex, confrontational, and casually brutal about human nature. It is also linguistically rich, laden with levels of personal and social criticism and characterization, darkly funny, and frequently disturbing.
The story concerns the events which transpire when a cultured academic, the eldest brother in a family of three, returns from the United States to visit his family and introduce them to his wife of six years. She’s beautiful, civilized, and seems sexually charged even in the way she moves. They are an uncouth bunch of London working class types, including a grumpy, profane, and misogynistic father, a sleazy and clearly criminal middle son, a thuggish younger son who is a would-be boxer, and an unassuming and much put-upon uncle. The presence of this attractive female in their midst sets off primal, atavistic forces which challenge the moral and social order both on stage and off, leading to a climax and resolution which still has the power to generate wildly varying responses from an audience. It is endlessly debatable and offers itself to analysis from many angles. As Michael Billington notes in the program "You can never say with Pinter that one interpretation is wholly right or another wholly wrong. What you can say, with reasonable certainty, is that the play continues to get under our collective skins…"
The current production at Dublin’s Gate theatre, which will tour to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York , is beautifully modulated. Director Robin Lefevre guides a superb cast through the intricacies of Pinter’s dialogue and achieves a fine balance between theme and narrative. Ian Hart is excellent in the role of the swaggering teddy boy Lenny, Ian Holm (once Lenny himself) is equally impressive as the tyrannical father Max. Lia Williams handles the difficult job of playing the woman in this world of men with sensuous grace. Her performance is instrumental in sorting through some of the play’s trickier themes. The entire cast is top notch in fact, as is every element of the production. It is the best theatre seen in Dublin for some time.
There is still something of the anger and frustration of post-war British youth (seen at its apex in the late 1950s and early sixties) at the core of this play. As the seeming moral certainties of the war years began to disintegrate with economic and social change, artists began to explore British culture with a more jaundiced and less affectionate eye. Osborne, Pinter, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and many others contributed to a new style of film and theatre in which realism seems the primary aesthetic. Stories about ordinary people living everyday lives became commonplace. Yet they were always pregnant with social conscience and spat bile at tradition in a way which made them a challenge both to British society and to its representation on stage and screen.
Under the surface these dramas were usually less realistic than they seemed though. Some of them found ways around conventional narrative structure with minor variants in style and storytelling. Pinter pushed the envelope in a more particular way than many of his contemporaries. The Homecoming followed on the heels of his film script for The Servant, a film which had a touch of Luis Bu�uel’s ability to make the patently unrealistic seem completely natural. Like Bu�uel, Pinter demonstrated that only a slight shift in perspective is needed to make human behavior appear insane, and showed how easily the veneer of ‘civilization’ can be swept aside in favor of something more revealing. It is a kind of quasi-surrealism which led to the label of ‘theatre of the absurd’ being attached to his work.
The play initially presents itself as a domestic drama, introducing the working-class family in their living room as they bicker and confront one another with a combination of argument, ribbing, and bitter ranting. The peculiarities of staging and language become immediately evident. For a start there is the unnatural stillness of the actors. Slight though it is, there is a sense of precision in their postures and gestures which focuses attention. It is almost stylized, yet not enough to move into the realms of the kind of experimental mime used by Steven Berkoff in Salome (another staple at the Gate). The audience is being invited to notice the body language and the staging, which heightens the sense of theatrical space and profoundly affects perceptions of the characters. At some points they seem to prowl around one another like animals. Holm’s character even expresses himself through grunts and snarls in several scenes. Other times the characters stand facing one another (or not) in what seems like a silent squabble for territorial control of the stage. This theme of atavism is an important one in the play, and it is effectively highlighted in this production.
The dialogue adds layers of meaning and referentiality to the physical action. It mixes commonplace parochial references with an uncanny eloquence in thought and expression which shifts the boundaries of characterization. As the play goes on the characters expound on morality and philosophy (and the points are illustrated through dramatic action), yet they always seem real and alive as 1960s Londoners in a conventional ‘realist’ sense. They develop in relation to one another through interaction, yet that interaction is frequently peppered with unusual moments of observation or reflection. The audience searches for the meaning behind what is said rather than that inherent in the words themselves. The repressed is as exciting as the represented, and when the play finally reveals itself in the last scenes, the effect is like a creeping nightmare which has finally burst into reality.
It is not difficult to become aware of the level of detail and depth in this work. It is, after all, entirely visible and presented directly on stage. It is far more challenging to sort through what effect these have on your response to the play. This production is notable for its clarity in presenting the complexities just as they should be: with the stark directness of Pinter’s own text. Lefevre directs with demonstrable understanding of the author’s vision: social, psychological, and moral. The audience is challenged to explore its response to a world seemingly bereft of spirituality where the animal and the intellect have little to separate them. With a cast as good as this, a great set, beautiful lighting, and this degree of textual richness, Pinter’s important work is triumphantly presented to a new generation of theatregoers. The debates generated by the play will continue for a long time–and it’s already been thirty five years.