Theatre Review: ‘The Homecoming’

Fantasy masquerading as reality

‘The Homecoming’ by Harold Pinter, Lyttleton Theatre.

Harold Pinter is perhaps the most lauded English playwright of the past thirty years. The National Theatre has premiered three of his new plays and revived five others in the last 20 years, and now revives a sixth, The Homecoming. For its part The Homecoming has been seen widely both in the United Kingdom and across the world. The programme for the current revival at the National Theatre lists forty-four major productions, across five continents, since the play was first performed in 1965. Pinter is seen as a serious and successful dramatist. His plays both command respect and can usually be counted upon to fill a theatre. Several have been successfully filmed. Performances of his new work are seen as significant events, not least by those arbiters of taste, the critics of national newspapers.

Years ago Kenneth Tynan noted that Pinter’s ability to hold an audience seemed to depend upon three qualities: “his bizarre use of dramatic technique”; “his skill in evoking atmosphere” (especially feat and apprehension); and “his command of contemporary idiom” (A View of the English Stage, K. Tynan).

These three qualities are very evident in The Homecoming, the tale of the return of a prodigal son and his wife to some anonymous tenement in North London, the son now teaching philosophy in an American university. Who are the four males in residence? What are their positions as members of the family? Pinter reveals his secrets slowly, teasingly. And as he does so he preserves an atmosphere of uncertainty, not to say menace. As the four males circle each other violence never feels far away. It is spat out in the dialogue. It is apparent in the body language. And with the arrival of the returning son and his wife it becomes manifest.

But there is a problem. Pinter’s use of language may be convincing—some people do, on some occasions, speak in the intensely aggressive and idiomatic way that is commonplace in his work—but it is nevertheless often very difficult to square what the characters say to one another, with that we know about them and what they do. So if the dialogue is convincing, its use by characters on stage is not. Thus it appears that brother Lenny is a pimp. In such circumstances would Lenny continue to live at home where he is the butt of aggressive behaviour from his almost psychotic father? And when locked in a row with his returning brother, a successful philosopher, would we expect Lenny rather than his brother to win the sophisticated discussion about the nature of philosophical discourse?

If Pinter’s characterisation is unconvincing his storytelling is almost perverse. Why would the successful son want to bring his wife home to the alienating hell from which he had successfully flown? And what happens between the end of the first act and the beginning of the second, to transform a group of six adults who were previously locked in a violent, physical struggle, and who now emerge like some fawning members of a college sophomore group? Pinter offers no reasons for their inexplicable behaviour. And as for the apparently demure wife who is revealed as a potentially promiscuous woman—would she really exchange life in America with her husband and her three children for the charms of being a part-time prostitute, as well as a part-time housewife and comforter to four variously unattractive males? The proposition is at once as hugely unconvincing as it is significantly misogynistic.

Many/most of the characters (sic) in The Homecoming have neither substance nor validity. The actors are superb and they demand our attention. However, although the set convincingly captures the essence of a shabby tenement in the 1960s, its realism contrasts markedly with the frequent implausibility of Pinter’s characterisation and narrative. Never mind that almost without exception Pinter’s characters are significantly disadvantaged and/or unfailingly unpleasant—a view of the world which is at odds with most people’s experience even in the barbaric world of the market—their behaviour seems to be based almost entirely on primitive physiological and psychological needs and drives; drives which barely acknowledge the social world beyond home and hearth. Pinter’s writing may have many qualities, but he ultimately presents us with a preposterously uni-dimensional view of human behaviour; a kind of unreal, invalid fascist nightmare.

Michael Gill

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