By: Harold Pinter
Directed by: Michael Attenborough
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 9th February 2008
After the first scene of this play, I wondered why it wasn’t better known, even done in schools. After the first half, I had a pretty good idea why it wasn’t done in schools, but I’m still not clear why it isn’t better known, and done more often. Perhaps the violence and misogyny put people off. If so, it’s a shame, because it’s a brilliantly written play, full of Pinter’s ambiguities and menacing intonations, and with the rhythms and cadences making it seem like a classical composition rather than a play.
The story, if it can be called that in a Pinter play, concerned the return of one of three sons to the house he grew up in. It’s an all-male household – the father, his brother, and the other two sons. The returning son has brought his wife, and in this production they’ve cast Jenny Jules as the wife, Ruth. This was suggested by Pinter himself, apparently, as well as being the director’s choice, so the juxtaposition of unknown wife and abandoned family is theoretically given an added dimension by having her played by a black actress. However, there’s nothing much in the dialogue to suggest that anyone takes any notice of her skin colour, so in some ways this was a wasted opportunity, and we’re effectively dealing with colour blind casting again. Anyway, she’s an excellent actress, and played the part with great assurance, bringing out what little of her character Pinter puts on the page. Let’s face it, he never could do women well, so this is really a play about the male relationships, and the men’s inability to relate to women as anything other than whore or saint, and often confusing the two.
The scenes give us glimpses of the characters in action. The father, Max (Kenneth Cranham) would give Alf Garnett six lengths start and still pass him well before the furlong pole. He’s a bitter, twisted old man, who spends his time alternating between smooth charm (rarely) and vicious ranting (mostly). He’s obviously done his fatherly duty by hitting his sons copiously with his stick, and I wondered what treatment his wife received when she was still alive. When he first sees Ruth, he attacks Teddy (Neil Dudgeon) for bringing a whore into the house. Even when he’s been told she’s Teddy’s wife, he still has a rant, and then he’s all charm and smarm with her.
Teddy is a strange character. At first he seems nervous and over-anxious, as he and his wife arrive. His meeting with his dad has some very uncomfortable undertones, as they square up for either a battle or a cuddle. It’s clear he’s done his best to get away from the toxic atmosphere of the house, which is why he’s been in America for the last nine years. He’s a doctor of philosophy, literally, as philosophy is his subject. He then decides to leave; presumably the family hasn’t improved over the years he’s been away. However the family want Ruth to stay and look after them, at least when she isn’t turning tricks on the side to help make ends meet. Teddy seems completely unconcerned by this, and is totally happy to leave his wife with this group of Neanderthals. Strange doesn’t quite cover it.
Lenny (Nigel Lindsay), the second son, is a smooth operator. We don’t find out what business he’s in till the second half – he runs a number of prostitutes. He seems to have got past his upbringing by no longer being frightened of his dad, but when confronted with Ruth’s calm assurance, he becomes quite nervous. Joey (Danny Dyer) is the third son, a boxer still under the influence of his dad. He’s the quiet one. There’s also Sam (Anthony O’Donnell), Max’s brother, who works as a chauffeur by day and does the dishes by night. He’s clearly the sensitive one in the family, and the only one who seems to value women for more than sex and housework.
Ruth is the typical female blank at the centre of Pinter’s work. She’s described, by herself and Teddy, as the perfect wife and mother – they have three boys back in America – yet she shows a strange tendency to use sexual allure to enthral the men in the house. She has an encounter with Lenny early on, where he tries to impress her by telling her how he beats up women (not a chat-up line I’d recommend, by the way), and she unnerves him by staying calm and asking straightforward questions. She wins the battle of wills over a glass of water, and yet she seems to be propositioning Lenny. Later, when Joey comes downstairs after spending two hours upstairs with her, it turns out he hasn’t done anything – no sex, nothing. According to his tales of other encounters with women, this is not usual. All these men are attracted to her – moths and flame spring to mind – yet they’re able to talk of putting her on the game so she can earn some money for her keep. At the end, she chooses to stay with the family, on her terms, and as her husband leaves, she’s sitting in the main chair, Max’s chair, just beginning to smile. Her reign has begun, but what sort of a reign will it be in that household? It reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but with a woman involved.
This description really doesn’t get across the beauty of the language. Even with all the swearing and crudity, it was powerful and focused. The performances got the most out of it, and although I would like to see it again, I’m not sure it could be done better. I just hope it is done again – it deserves to be.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me