Patrick Carnegy

Power games in Stratford

The latest from the RSC

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.

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