Saturday, September 24, 2011

(No.172) Harold Pinter's Stratford Festival "Homecoming"

In 1975 English author and historian Lady Antonia Fraser, age 42, left her husband MP Hugh Fraser with whom she had six children for English playwright and former actor Harold Pinter, age 44, who was then married to actress Vivien Merchant with whom he had one son.

Lady Antonia and Pinter were together (they married in 1980) until Pinter died on Christmas Eve 2008. Fraser wrote a very affecting account of their time together in a 2010 book entitled "Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter".

In the autumn of 2007 a successful production of Pinter's play "The Homecoming" was mounted in New York on the 40th anniversary of its New York Broadway debut. Pinter's health did not permit him to attend. Earlier, in March 2007, Pinter actually took a leading role (as Max) in a BBC Radio 3 production of "The Homecoming".

In the summer of that same year Pinter, whose illness was both lingering and terminal (he died 18 months later), wrote a poem for Lady Antonia. She burst into tears when he read it to her because, she writes, "at the time, and ever after, I recognized it for what it was: a farewell".

"I shall miss you so much when I'm dead
The loveliest of smiles
The softness of your body in our bed,
My everlasting bride
Remember that when I am dead
You are forever alive in my heart and my head"

Anyone who has ever seen "The Homecoming", published in 1965 and widely regarded as one of Printer's best plays (he wrote 28 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005) will know that his farewell poem to his wife is a universe away from that play's often shocking dialogue.

The Stratford Shakespearean Festival is presenting "The Homecoming" this season until Oct.30 with Brian Dennehy in the role of Max.

The play's claustrophobic focus is on a rather nasty north London working class family of men, the wife and mother having died some years before. There is Max, the father, his two sons and his brother. They assault each other verbally and regularly.

They comprise quite a nasty stew of males who work to project and reinforce their sense of themselves as macho types. This dysfunctional quartet is surprised by the arrival of the third son who departed years before for the U.S. He returns to confront them with his status as a university professor and he has a sexy wife in tow.

In his review of the 1997 Broadway revival of the play the New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley described "The Homecoming" as a "masterpiece of family warfare." It is an apt description.

Brantley also put his finger on a key aspect of any of Pinter's English plays: he noted that "recent broadway revivals of Pinter plays I love ... have left me cold. That's partly because English class accents are important in landing the cadences (and establishing the balance of power) in Mr. Pinter's famously, pause-pocked dialogue. Playing Pinter requires repressing the urge to act actively."

The non-English actors in this season's Stratford production all try to affect English accents but with varying degrees of proficiency, consistency and authenticity. Dennehy's is somewhat better than alright, Aaron Krohn's as son Lenny is very good, the rest of the cast ok.

Overall the cast is strong. Dennehy as Max is a pleasure to watch as the decaying, foul-mouthed old man. Krohn as Lenny, a pimp with the quickest mind in the family, is excellent. Ian Lake as Joey the would-be boxer has less to do but does a convincing portrayal of a son who appears borderline simple-minded. Mike Shara's returning son Teddy seems too emotionally detached, almost an observer while Cara Ricketts as his wife Ruth doesn't seem for much of her time on stage 'hot' enough to give her ultimate involvement with the family believability. Stephen Ouimette as Max's brother Adam conveys an effective mix of stubbornness and deference.

Directed by Jennifer Tarver this production of 'The Homecoming" has the play's necessary atmosphere reinforced by designer Leslie Frankish's set. It looks right; grotty and rundown. It did seem to me that the famous Pinteresque pauses in delivering dialogue were sometimes overdone.

"The Homecoming" is often described as both dark and comedic. Just call it a black comedy with the emphasis on the dark side. This Stratford production of what is arguably Pinter's best play is a superior one and provides a rewarding time in the theatre.

by Alastair Rickard




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