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Power games in Stratford

The latest from the RSC

13 August 2011

12:00 AM

13 August 2011

12:00 AM

There’s something decidedly odd in being part of a largely grey-haired audience sitting respectfully through a play about the discomforts of a cantankerous old butcher’s ménage consisting of a chauffeur, pimp, demolition worker and, ah yes, a professor of philosophy incomprehensibly returning from his American campus to the bosom of his dysfunctional family. This revival of The Homecoming is also Harold Pinter’s return to the RSC after a long absence and it’s part of the company’s celebration of its 50th birthday.

In 1965, the premiere of The Homecoming was a landmark of Peter Hall’s early years as founder-director of the RSC. The play was then as iconoclastic as Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger. Much of the detail in what was then excitingly brave and dangerous now comes across as curiously quaint and nostalgic. The cigarettes and cigars, the radiogram, the Humber Super Snipe and the dearth of alcohol were once actual but are now softened into history.

In his new staging, David Farr, who worked with Pinter in 2008 at the Lyric Hammersmith on The Birthday Party, succeeds in sustaining the raw power of The Homecoming, and also finds an arresting new emphasis. It’s always been plain that the root malaise of the butcher’s enclave of warring males has been the absence of Mummy. Jonathan Slinger’s smart-arse Lenny and Richard Riddell’s Joey, whenever in a jam, wind the clock back to their mewling infancy. It’s the arrival of the philosopher’s glamorous wife Ruth that makes them begin to grow up, holds out the hope of saving them from mutual destruction.

Where Vivien Merchant, the original Ruth, had remained coolly mysterious, Aislín McGuckin is very much her own woman, effortlessly resisting husband Teddy’s petulant attempts at control. It may seem scandalous that the butcher’s brood should be solving their problems, sexual and otherwise, by putting her on the game. But in
McGuckin’s magnetically strong performance this chimes with her own need for escape from a husband concerned only with ‘how far you can operate on things and not in things’. Power passes from the men to her and Farr makes you see that it’s really her homecoming that matters.

The horrible Max, superbly played by Nicholas Woodeson, may rejoice in Ruth’s ‘adaptability’, but it’s he and his sons who must now hasten to ‘adapt’, beginning with scurrying to supply her demand for whisky. It’s their future, not hers, that’s now in question, though I suppose you’re also left wondering whether a ready supply of alcohol wouldn’t have solved everyone’s problems a long while ago.

Sexual fantasy in a different key is also on display next door at the RST, in Nancy Meckler’s invigorating and often very funny Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s by no means novel to show the dream to be as therapeutic for Theseus and Hippolyta (by doubling them with Oberon and Titania), as it is for the pairs of younger lovers, but Meckler pulls it off as well as I’ve ever seen.

She and designer Katrina Lindsay hazard a provocatively uningratiating opening on a bare stage furnished with little more than a button-backed cream leather sofa and matching easy chair. On the sofa uneasily reclines Hippolyta in a fur coat, unamused by Theseus’s plans for their marriage and positively scornful of his trump card, a diamond bracelet conjured from an ostentatious bouquet.

With the scene magically transformed into the forest, and herself into Titania, Pippa Nixon’s beautifully played fairy queen is attended by rumbustious fairies, whose costumes and hair-dos seem a large-hearted homage to Amy Winehouse. Whimsy is on view in a cute little pram for the infant Indian boy, whose ownership is the ostensible source of the trouble between Titania and Jo Stone-Fewings’s refreshingly earthy Oberon. Meckler’s staging effortlessly intertwines the serious, the playful and the riotously farcical.

The mistress of an unbelievably wide range of expressive whimpers, shrieks and lyrical declarations, Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Helena is compulsively watchable. Rarely can the great lovers’ quarrel scene have been so funny, show-stoppingly so when Matti Houghton’s outraged Hermia ends up pinioned to the sofa by Lysander and Demetrius. The surreal, Magritte-like feeling about the staging is epitomised by a collection of chairs, many of them as ‘bottomless’ as Bottom’s dream, suspended high above the stage and which play a crucial role in the restoration of the lovers, each to each.

The mysterious, sometimes masque-like elements — as in the procession in which, to a sly pastiche of Ravel’s Bolero, Titania leads off to bed her tethered assinine lover (the gloriously over-the-top  Marc Wooton) — are brought down squarely to earth in the hugely enjoyable slapstick of the Pyramus and Thisbe show, much of it seemingly ad-libbed in response to the helpless mirth of a totally captivated audience.

There’s a weak link in a miscast lanky adult Puck, inexplicably festooned as an Autolycus who’d plundered Tie-Rack, and who had no idea what to do with his lines. But all in all this is a terrific show with a style and momentum that disarm criticism and sweep you along.

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