Review: The Homecoming ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 08, 2007

Review: The Homecoming

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, directed by Duncan Graham. Designed by Sarah John, lighting design by Nic Mollison, sound design by Andrew Howard. With Don Barker, Wayne Anthoney, Wendy Bos, Nathaniel Davison, Patrick Graham and Renato Musilino. Floogle @ The Studio, Holden Street Theatres, Hindmarsh, Adelaide, until October 20. Bookings: (08) 8225 8888

Harold Pinter sometimes seems like an uncomfortable fact lodged in the craw of mainstream drama. What is one to do with him? He's not at all nice. He never does an audience the courtesy of telling it what to think. His plays are discomforting, unforgiving, implacable. He is like a bad conscience that will not go away.

Pinter's oeuvre is the sort of work, in short, which Australian theatre finds on the whole easier to honour in the breach. Much respect is paid to Pinter - who is, after all, the winner of a Nobel Prize - but he is done surprisingly seldom for a playwright who is generally acknowledged as among the most significant of the past half century. It is most often left to the smaller companies to premiere the recent work, or to revitalise the classics.

Which is how your bloodhound blogger found herself in Adelaide this weekend, where a young independent company, Floogle, is mounting a production of The Homecoming. And here I've really dug up the truffles. This lucid reading of Pinter's most famous play is as elegant a realisation of his darkly comic terror as you are likely to see.

Duncan Graham's production strikes a number of difficult balances. It's a respectful and powerful rendering of a classic that is neither anachronistically dressed in contemporary clothes nor redolent of mothballs. It neither over-aestheticises the play, nor flinches from its extreme formal challenges. And, without in the least compromising the terror in the play's core, it's blackly hilarious.

The Homecoming is, as the critic John Lahr says, "a brilliantly sculpted stage event". The visual metaphor is apt: there is a strong sense in which this play is a dramatic object, an almost mathematical calculation of relationships and oblique perceptions proffered up, like a painting by Francis Bacon, for our uneasy contemplation. Perhaps the chief difficulty in presenting Pinter's work is in finding the balance between this abstraction and his equally strong realism, which is so vivid and precise that it attains an air of the surreal.

At its most simple, The Homecoming is a story about a family of men living without a woman in the house. Max (Don Barker), a former butcher, is the patriarch. He lives with his brother Sam (Wayne Anthoney) and his two sons Lenny (Patrick Graham) and Joey (Nathaniel Davison) in a house in North London. At the beginning of the play, his oldest son Teddy (Renato Musolino), who teaches philosophy at an American university, returns home unannounced in the middle of the night, with his wife Ruth (Wendy Bos). Teddy has not told his family that he is married, nor that he is, like Max, the father of three sons.

Over the following day, the plates shift. Ruth seduces both of Teddy's brothers, and then decides to abandon her children and husband and stay in North London, where she will earn her keep as one of Lenny's whores. She has no objection to this work, and drives a bargain that is distinctly to her material advantage. Teddy leaves for America without her. The homecoming of the title is, as it turns out, not Teddy's, but Ruth's.

As in a dream, the actions of the characters, no matter how seemingly irrational, violent or unconscionable, are accepted as wholly natural. At no point does anyone proffer any explanation, or even protest. The shock it caused on its 1964 premiere was, as Martin Esslin commented, not only that a completely respectable woman could turn so rapidly into a whore, but that she accepted it with such nonchalance. (Before second wave feminism, I suppose, the notion of marriage as legalised prostitution might not have been so obvious as it is now.)

No matter how you look at it, the actions of Pinter's characters remain mysterious. Not that much ink hasn't been spent on trying to decipher them. Esslin himself made a brave attempt at The Homecoming, reading it in psychoanalytical terms as a drama of Oedipal sexual conflict between fathers and sons. ("Ruth," he says startlingly, "is obviously a nymphomaniac".) But no matter how ingeniously such a theory plays through the text, the fact remains that there is always something unsatisfactory about such readings, a recondite core in the work that stubbornly eludes any such pinning down.

Perhaps the clue in approaching Pinter - and where I think Floogle's production succeeds admirably - is in refusing interpretation, which will be inevitably reductive, in favour of a focus on the formal shape of the work itself. This permits the dark concatenation of the play's action to exert its full unsettling power. Here it's probably worth remembering Susan Sontag's classic essay, Against Interpretation:

This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. . . .But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings, and all, though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams' forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanch Du Bois, it would not be manageable.

Pinter is decidedly not "manageable". But when he is done well, it becomes clear that what is generally called his "difficulty" isn't in the text, which is not itself inherently obscure. Even if we are unsure of motive or meaning, nothing that happens on stage is difficult to understand: people speak, move, drink, smoke, fight, ignore each other. Something happens, and then it stops happening. And, in a quite real sense, that is the beginning and end of it.

The play's alleged "difficulty" exists - even 40 years after it was written - in the frustration of the expectations an audience might bring to the theatre: the idea, for example, that a play will signal how an audience is supposed to respond, or will provide a clear moral viewpoint from which the action might be judged. Pinter simply refuses to supply any such framework, instead delineating with a ferocious precision actions that are at once banal and deeply inscrutable.

This effectively exposes the abyss beneath the surface of social intercourse. The terror of mere existence opens between the gaps of his language, and is acknowledged in the anxiety behind the laughter of the audience. It's appropriate that John Lahr quotes Sartre, the pope of existential angst, when he discusses the uncanny power of Pinter's linguistic dislocations. In The Homecoming, Lahr says, consciousness is "a great emptiness, a wind blowing towards objects".

The uneasiness - not to say creeping terror - that Pinter can provoke stems from his brutal stripping away of the mitigating social masks that conceal the animal roots of human behaviour. In Pinter's hands, language is not a mark of our superiority as a species: it remains as bestial as claws and teeth.

One of the most illuminating essays written about The Homecoming is Irving Wardle's The Territorial Struggle, in which he analyses Pinter's dramaturgy using models derived from animal behaviour. "The play," he says, "has to be understood in territorial terms, or not at all... what we see is a ritualised tournament in which the two instincts of sexual desire and territorial aspiration fight it out..." Which gives a special poignancy to a comment reportedly overheard on its premiere: "These people," said a woman disgustedly. "They're just like animals."

In Floogle's production, this quality is brought to the surface with a bitter clarity through some very precisely focused performances. The play is beautifully cast, and the orchestration of Pinter's rhythms is well-judged and various, although I felt in a few isolated cases near the beginning that more could have been made of those famous pauses, that more space could have been carved out around the words. It is a tribute to the actors that Pinter's language is wholly absorbed into the action: I forgot all about the sophistication of Pinter's linguistic games, and found myself simply watching the play.

This lucidity stems from close attention to detail: there is nothing on stage that is not absolutely necessary. Sarah John's design, for example, is an exercise in elegant minimalism. The stage is slightly raised, revealing the exposed foundations of a house, and the set consists of items of furniture - a sofa, a chair, coffee tables, a sideboard - lit in a lush palette of umbers. Nic Mollison's unobstrusively beautiful lighting and Andrew Howard's sound design, mainly isolated chords that subtly disrupt rhythmic expectations, do much to heighten the poise of this production.

In a night of generally strong performances, perhaps I most liked Renato Musolino's portrayal in the deeply ambiguous role of Teddy. Musolino, looking disconcertingly like a young Harold Pinter, has the one moment when raw emotion breaks through the traumatic dislocation between speech and action. In a painful speech towards the end, he reveals both Teddy's impotence and his sense of separation from his family. This alienation is the price of his self-consciousness: it might make him aware of his actions, but it does nothing to free him from their implications. Knowledge merely fills him with revulsion. "You're just objects," he tells his family. "You just... move about. I can observe it... It's the same as I do. But you're lost in it.... I won't be lost in it."

It seems to me that, in its directness and sophistication, this is a particularly Australian take on The Homecoming. What is signally lacking is any skerrick of earnestness: it fully brings out the lustre of Pinter's grotesque comedy, giving the lie to anyone who claims that his plays are a morose series of high art pauses. The play sparkles like a malign crystal in all its complexity, as relevant and disturbing as it was the day it was written. If you're anywhere nearby, don't miss this one.

Picture: Wendy Bos and Patrick Graham in The Homecoming. Photo: Sam Oster

Theatre Notes flew to Adelaide as a guest of Floogle, on the understanding that they got the review they got.


Peter said...

I love it when you write about Pinter. He is one of my favourites, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I never feel like I completely understand it.

I suppose that's kind of the point.

jana said...

On a slightly unrelated note, do you find Adelaide a city much richer in creation of beauty than its small size would make it seem? I've never heard much good about it before I visited, and was very surprised to find it a remarkably cultured place (it reminded me of Vienna, of all places). A lot of people have since agreed with me. And not all of them European either.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Peter! Jana, some of the most incredible theatre I've seen has been in Adelaide (and while I was there, I popped into the gallery, which has some real treasures - someone over the years was buying with exquisite taste). But I wouldn't want to live there, all the same, it reminds me rather too much of my home town, Ballarat.

Matthew said...

I would never have thought to compare Adelaide and Ballarat, Alison. But now you've made the comparison for me, I can kind of see it.

I've always had a soft spot for Adelaide; I suppose because, when you hail from Mount Gambier, Adelaide is the big city. I was surprised, last year, to return for the first time since moving to Melbourne, only to find that the place felt like a larger-than-average (and, in my mind, actually rather pretty) regional centre.

Alison Croggon said...

...and then you get to London and Melbourne is a big country town... :) And yes, Adelaide is very pretty. So is Ballarat, come to think of it. Or bits of it, anyway.

Jana said...

Do comments here disappear often? Because mine do.

I wrote earlier today - I swear on theatre - that I understand, I'm from a small city myself and do not understand those who trade the mystique of the big city for some country life sort of thing. But also that small cities (not towns, Adelaide isn't one) can have strange, beautiful and rather quirky initiatives blossom because the competition is not as fierce, the need to be profitable relatively tampered, and one simply has more time&space to convince the public. Such initiatives - and I think the Adelaide Experimental Art Foundation might be an example - often leave an indelible mark on the place, influencing it much more thoroughly than an initiative of the same size would influence a big city, because the small city listens more closely. And a lot of interesting stuff then happens.

In any case, Adelaide is my second favourite place in Australia and a real antidote to places like Perth (and, correct me if I'm wrong, to what I imagine Brisbane to be).

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - I don't know if it happens commonly that comments disappear, but my apologies if it did. Sometimes it takes a couple of goes before the software allows them to be posted.

I love London, but I think what you say is quite true about smaller centres - Adelaide is famously cultured and of course had the first arts festival in Australia. Edinburgh is another example.

Regional events can be brilliant. The best festival I've ever been to was in Benalla, a tiny township in northern Victoria, about 12 years ago - it was a contemporary visual arts festival which was organised by Ivan Durrant, and they asked poets along to read at the gallery openings. There were all these incredible exhibitions in all the local businesses, like the car yard or the bank, so when you drove through the town you couldn't miss that something was happening. And EVERYBODY went. I read in the Mitre 10 to 200 people. As it was organised by an artist, the main objective was that artists talk to each other, so local producers donated all this food so every lunch and dinner was free. Patrick McCaughey flew in to open it at the gorgeous little art gallery they have there on the river. It was quite an amazing event.

Anonymous said...

Bit late on this one.Nice to see you big smokers speaking so positively about our little village here in Adders. Refreshing change from references to hicks and free settlers :)
Just wanted to add that I think the preponderance of decent work that comes out of here is also a reflection of reaping the benefits of the Dunstan years in state government in the '70's -perhaps the last reasonably sane and genuinely supportive pro-arts government in the country?
Personally I was a member of a theatre collective in the mid-eighties that in its hey-day was 17 people strong,all on ongoing equity award wages. It seems incredible now.The EAF blossomed in that time too.
Its taken a while for the powers that be to drum into our thick heads that that is not the way it is now!but some of the spirit remains.And yes a really great arts festival has always provided inspiration.Cheers,Eileen