Make-believe with malice

In Roger Michell's revival of Harold Pinter's `The Homecoming', the audience sees through the play as well as the set.
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In his recently published critical biography of Harold Pinter, Michael Billington proclaims that The Homecoming is the dramatist's "masterpiece". Faced with Roger Michell's revival of the play at the Lyttelton, any newcomer to Pinter could be forgiven for thinking that, if the pre-eminence is indeed the case, there's every reason for giving the rest of his oeuvre a widish berth.

In a badly misguided touch, the walls are translucent on the set of the East End home where the play's all male family - rancid with rancour and testosterone - are incited to fresh spasms of territorial and sexual competitiveness when the eldest son, now a US-based academic, returns for a surprise visit with his English wife. But this production makes you see through the play as well as through the walls.

Usually, one reacts to this piece in a state of appalled, prurient fascination as the wife, Ruth, extricates herself from an evidently imperfect marriage by the novel expedient of consenting to remain with her in-laws in the double role of money-spinning prostitute and mother substitute. Just how much the play's creepy spell depends on the tautness of the direction is made cruelly clear by this sagging production. Under no danger of hypnosis here, your mind is left free to brood on the gaping artificialities in the drama.

Roger Michell is certainly a director to be reckoned with. His film of Persuasion has claims to be regarded as the best ever TV adaptation of a classic novel. His production of My Night with Reg offered, during its run, the finest example of ensemble acting in London. But the National Theatre has yet to see him on top form. His Olivier staging of Under Milk Wood piled on the visual imagery in a redundant effort to present to the eye what Dylan Thomas's radio play presents all too visibly to the mind's eye. Now the largeness of the Lyttelton has encouraged Michell to go in for translucent walls so as to bring on stage what is more potent when left off it.

Among Pinter's many undoubted gifts as a dramatist is hard clarity of focus. Here, the fact that we can see - or rather, dimly discern - people retreating into their bedrooms or scraping dishes in the kitchen has the effect of distracting attention from the studiedly mannered minutiae of what is going on in the sitting-room where the play is set.

Only on one occasion does this expansion of visible territory genuinely heighten your sense of the obsessive territoriality of the characters. This comes when, roused from sleep and rightly suspicious that his pimp son Lenny is hiding something from him, David Bradley's decrepit, gravel-voiced lout of a patriarch, Max, advances into this youth's bedroom. We see Lenny nervously run on ahead and sweep something (pornography?) under his bed. That's not all Lenny is concealing, of course, but this paternal invasion gives added motivation here to the son's repulsive retaliatory speech of undermining inquisitiveness about the night he was conceived.

At other points, the set is a liability. It's almost comic, for example, that the off-stage event one has most need of help picturing - Ruth's two hours of pointedly anticlimactic love-making with her slow-witted brother-in-law Joey (played here as an unappetising runt whose boxing ambitions look comprehensively doomed) - is just the one that the geography of the set leaves to your already sorely tried imagination.

There was a time when Ruth's decision to stay - a move that involves abandoning her children - was viewed as a male fantasy projection. Pinter admirers are no longer content with that defence. Anxious to see the play as an almost feminist fable of female "empowerment", they stress the sterility of her marriage, the culpable detachment of her husband, and the way she negotiates better terms for herself (she's going to be a very high-class tart). But when the rules have been invented by sickeningly odious men, where's the triumph in winning the game? To read some Pinter critics, you'd think that Ruth was an evolutionary step in the direction of Madonna - Madonna as eulogised by Camille Paglia for her "full, florid expression of the whore's rule over men". What Ruth actually represents is a regression from the Nora of Ibsen's Doll's House who had the guts to get out of a bad marriage by going it alone.

Portraying Ruth, Lindsay Duncan is a listless, provocative enigma in nylon stockings. There's nothing much else she can be here except a sphinx without a riddle. It doesn't help that Michael Sheen, playing Lenny, the pimp brother-in-law whose brutal cockiness she elegantly deflates, has been directed to emphasise the underlying uncertainty at the expense of the surface menace. A wimp in wolf's clothing, this Lenny is too much the little boy pretending to be a man. When crossed, he petulantly blows smoke into people's faces or shows off the phallically long flame from his cigarette lighter. Why would she get a kick out of cutting this nerd down to size?

But then Ruth and husband Teddy (a miscast Keith Allen) are just about the least plausible academic couple in world drama. There's a play by Pinter called The Lover in which it turns out that the eponymous adulterer who calls each day is, in fact, the woman's husband. The most rational explanation for Ruth and Teddy is that they live down the road and pop in regularly for a spot of the same kind of ritualised make-believe.

In repertoire at the RNT (Lyttelton Theatre), London SE1. Booking: 0171-928 2252