A good three decades before the term toxic masculinity was coined, Pinter’s The Homecoming presented audiences with a group of men who revel in the worst excesses of stereotypical masculine behaviour. When sitting in their North London house – a subtly nightmarish vision of dark blue flock wallpaper – life seems to consist of dominating whoever happens to be in their immediate vicinity. Should a woman come into contact with them then we’re led to believe that things get very ugly indeed. But, like much of Pinter, there are ambiguities at every turn.
The stories the men tell of their lives often seem to be improvised on the spot simply to aid them in whatever confrontation they’re involved in, so it’s hard to know if we’re supposed to take them at face value. Woman are causally threatened with murder, or just as casually raped, but internal inconsistencies suggest that the tales are exaggerated or simply fabrications. When an actual woman comes into the home they share it turns out that she is the one who wields the power. But even here it’s hard to know if this is illusory as by the play’s end she seems to acquiesce in her own degradation.
Max (Keith Allen) is the prototypical Pinter character: a working class man who radiates a certain kind of domineering energy. He shares a house with his brother Sam (Ian Bartholomew) and his two sons Lenny (Mathew Horne) and Joey (Geoffrey Lumb). Max is a man looking for a fight and Lenny is more than eager to rile him with a mixture of amused contempt and the occasional display of naked hostility. Sam is arguably the most likeable character on stage, and certainly the gentlest, and it’s interesting that Pinter gives hints that he’s gay. Early on he’s criticised by Max for his inability to find a wife and later on Max even says that he’d ‘bend over for half a dollar on Blackfriars Bridge’. Sam manages to exempt himself from the constant onslaught of petty battles, at least until a final physical confrontations.
The cycle of anger and resentment would conceivably go on forever though it takes a new course when Max’s other son Teddy (Sam Alexander) arrives unannounced with his wife Ruth (Shanaya Rafaat). Teddy is a professor of philosophy at an American university and although he shows none of the menace of his immediate family members he still tries to control his wife: no matter how often she insists she’s not tired the more he pointlessly insists she goes to bed. Ruth is ill-prepared for the reality of Max (Teddy has simply told her that his family are ‘very warm’ and, rather ominously, ’they’re not ogres’) who, on seeing her, asks why there’s a filthy tart in his house.
Allen is suitably misanthropic and menacing as the irredeemable patriarch of the family – it might actually be impossible to name one good thing he does or says. In fact his descriptions of bathing his sons and tucking them up in bed when they were young are delivered with such a sense of threat it’s tempting to read them as him tormenting victims he sexually abused as children. The stand out performance comes from Horne whose Lenny can electrify with the sheer force of his hatred. The evening truly comes alive when he gives two appalling monologues about helping, and then attacking, an old woman and then toying with the idea of murdering a prostitute because she was ‘falling apart with the pox’.
When Ruth asks how he knew she was diseased Horne’s delivery of the line ‘I decided she was’ is as chilling as it’s horrifying, and it’s here The Homecoming becomes truly thrilling theatre. Rafaat is imperious and and seemingly unfazed by the appalling events taking place around her; it’s as if she’s some other-worldly being who can’t be affected by the stupid men who surround her. Though her ‘victory’ which has her being turned into a prostitute, but on favourable terms, will probably not please many feminists if the bargain is taken literally. Or, I suspect, metaphorically.
Jamie Glover’s excellent production certainly brings out the dark humour of the play. It’s always exciting in the theatre to find yourself laughing and then almost immediately feeling slightly guilty for doing so.
The Homecoming continues at Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday, May 7. For more info or tickets click here
Words by Michael Hootman