When Peter Hall founded the RSC in 1961, one of his guiding principles was that Shakespeare should be presented in dynamic, mutually illuminating relation to new playwrights. Harold Pinter was the linchpin of this policy. So, as the company celebrates its 50th birthday, it's fitting that it should programme a major revival of one the classic Pinter plays premiered under its auspices – even if the Swan Theatre, with its thrust stage and stacked, horse-shoe-shaped seating is an awkward space for such an intrinsically proscenium arch drama as The Homecoming (1965).
David Farr's assured, savagely funny production proves that this play has lost none of its capacity to discomfit and affront. If you were to imagine an out-of-time collaboration between, say, Ibsen and Hugh Hefner, you'd get some dim idea of the diabolical way the play merges a calculatedly controversial recipe for female liberation with a male porno fantasy. The piece resembles a blackly comic parody of a meet-the-folks drama when prodigal son Teddy, a professor of philosophy in America, returns to introduce Ruth, his wife of six years, to his unsavoury north London family.
In Nicholas Woodeson's superb performance, his father Max, an ex-butcher, struggles to continue to lord it over the men-only household like some flat-capped stick-wielding cockney-Jewish Lear, the ferocity of his rants and the aggression of his emasculating jibes against his boys and brother an index of his failing powers in the Oedipal contest for dominance. As a would-be titillating chat-up line, the pimp son, Lenny (an archly piss-taking Jonathan Slinger) treats his newly discovered sister-in-law to intimidating stories about his penchant for violence against women.
Aislin McGuckin's excellent Ruth radiates provocative poise and self-amusement as she crosses and uncrosses her legs and starts to beat these men at their own power games. But even though her husband (Justin Salinger) seems to put up no fight for her beyond a stricken, supercilious smile, American academe would surely have to be very arid indeed for her to choose to remain as the madonna/whore in his jungle, paying for her keep on her back in Greek Street and, we gather, at home. The play's horrible power partly stems from the lack of any explicit critique of this notion of empowerment, though there is an indirect one here as the red light intensifies over the final grisly tableau of a travesty pieta, replete pimp, corpse, and stroke-afflicted patriarch.
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