Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, revived this week at the National, has a doctor of philosophy returning home from America, with his new wife, to see his father, uncle and two brothers. These men find themselves competing for the woman. In the 32 years since its premiere, we have learnt from a variety of commentators that The Homecoming is an Oedipal fantasy, that it depicts a Jewish family in the East End, that it is a feminist piece, a misogynistic one, an amoral one, an autobiographical one, and a tribal, ritualistic and territorial one. All things to all men (and men in particular). Like a theatrical Access card, The Homecoming has become our flexible friend.
How differently we might now approach Pinter and his plays, if he seemed a bit less forbidding. Imagine if, instead of his customary black shirt, Pinter had sported the kind of wardrobe favoured by John Osborne - foppish silk hankies, long scarves, bow-ties and watch chains. Would we furrow our brows quite so hard and strain for interpretation? We could almost sit back and enjoy ourselves.
Watching Roger Michell's enthrallingly vivid revival of The Homecoming, one thankfully forgets the dreary stuff about the pauses and how the silences differ from the dot-dot-dots. We find ourselves in a world of sex, suspense, rivalry, anecdotes, playfulness and mystery. It has, indeed, some of the pleasures of the traditional post-war repertory play (the sort Pinter appeared in during the Fifties).
In those plays, as in The Homecoming, people arrive in darkened houses, switch on lights, and discover someone they weren't expecting seated in the armchair. In these, as in The Homecoming, couples come downstairs the next morning to face the embarrassment of meeting the family: a sort of guess-who's-come-to-breakfast? In these, as in The Homecoming, there's business with cups and saucers, and decorum battles it out with vulgarity. Pinter never shows us someone concealing a gun or hiding a dead body behind the inevitably brown sofa. But he still sweeps us along with something tantalising and fraught. He has perhaps the defining talent of a dramatist (and he has it by the bucketload): he makes what's happening between people actually happen, right there and then. The more I see his plays, the more I wish I hadn't read them. On stage, they have a rare vibrancy - a real sense of existing in the present tense.
In William Dudley's design, the house in north London has a very South Bank feel: so tall and spacious, in the Lyttelton, that the characters look as if they might be caretakers or removal men. Gauze walls allow us to see the comings and goings, a figure undressing upstairs on creaking floorboards, another noisily washing dishes in the kitchen below. High above, cases, prams and wicker baskets threaten to fall from the attic.
Four men live here. David Bradley is excellent as Max, the tyrannical head of the household, a shuffling, reptilian figure, with eyebrows sliding down over his eyes, head nodding to and fro, and words curling out of his gravelly throat as if it were a mangle. With a hectoring manner and emphatic elongated vowels ("youuuuuuuuu tit!"), he's a worthy rival to the older Steptoe.
The other residents are well-drawn: one son, Lenny (Michael Sheen), has the shiny-suited buoyancy of the cocksure young man. He sustains an ironic, nasal quality that, if anything, becomes too lightweight. The uncle, Sam (Sam Kelly), is an owlishly comic chauffeur, huskily boasting of his clients' respect. As Joey, the younger brother, the newcomer Eddie Marsan is compelling. With his blank, bruised face, he conveys a yearning inarticulacy. It's to this world that Teddy, a quiet, smiling, subtle performance by Keith Allen, introduces his wife.
The evening belongs to Lindsay Duncan. Her ice-cool poise defines the sexual balance of the play. Steely and delicate, a beacon of blonde feminity in a sea of masculine grime, Duncan sits on the edge of an armchair in a pool of light. She appears opaque and enigmatic, but that smokescreen suggests an enormous amount that isn't quite surfacing. With each line, she implies that she could be saying so much - but right now there's more to be gained from listening.
When Sheen fetches her a drink with mock politeness, he asks: "On the rocks?" Duncan replies, in the superb tones of the mature woman addressing the ingenue: "Rocks? What do you know about rocks?" When they discuss "being" and "non- being", she turns the conversation on to her lips: "Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant ... than the words which come through them." There is a lightning shift of mood. A frisson ripples through the stalls.
It's at moments such as this, in tingling explosive scenes, that Pinter creates something completely absorbing. Interpreting what exactly this resonant story means will probably tell you as much about the interpreter. Pinter himself might reasonably reply: "I was just making drama." When the producer Sam Speigel made the movie of The Last Tycoon, the man he hired to write the screenplay was Pinter.
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