(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/16; Harold Pinter as Lenny with Jane Lowe as Ruth in a 1969 production of The Homecoming at Watford Palace theatre. Photograph: Tony Prime/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock.)

Criticised for moral ambiguity on its premiere, the 1965 drama – about a woman in a masculine world of aggression and pretence – is back to provoke and disturb

Call a play a “modern classic” and you give it a veneer of respectability. But, although the term is widely applied to Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, I suspect it has lost none of its power to provoke and disturb. The proof will come when Jamie Glover’s revival of Pinter’s 1965 play, now with a cast headed by Keith Allen, Mathew Horne and Shanaya Rafaat, opens at the Theatre Royal Bath before going on a national tour.

So what is it about The Homecoming that upsets people? When I wrote a biography of Pinter in 1996, I discovered that the play was triggered by the experience of one of Pinter’s oldest Jewish friends who went to live in Canada and for 10 years never told his Hackney dad that he had married a Gentile girl and had a family of his own. But Pinter always denied that The Homecoming was either a specifically Jewish play or a transcription of reality. What the play shows is Teddy, now an academic in the US, returning to his north London roots to introduce his wife, Ruth, to his father, his uncle and his two brothers.

The action hinges on the choice confronting Ruth: whether to go back to America with Teddy or to settle in London with her rumbustious in-laws. You might ask where the offence is in that: ever since Ibsen’s A Doll’s House wives have been turning their backs on husbands and children in a bid for independence. The difference in The Homecoming – as most spectators will know – is that Ruth will not only be expected to minister to her new family but will apparently be set up in business by Lenny, her pimping brother-in-law.

In 1965 many people were shocked by Pinter’s refusal to offer any moral condemnation of this animalistic family. In today’s world – where the #MeToo movement has led to heightened awareness of female exploitation – I suspect The Homecoming will once again trigger fierce debate. Even those who accept that Ruth escapes a sterile marriage and acquires new agency at the play’s conclusion argue that she does so at humiliating cost.

But reading the play again, I was struck by a blindingly obvious fact: that Ruth is the only realist in a house of male fantasists. Max, the foul-tongued patriarch, talks palpable nonsense about being a racetrack wizard and consultant to a group of continental butchers. Lenny, the seemingly sophisticated pimp, is reduced to a quivering wreck by his first encounter with Ruth where she achieves dominance through a glass of water. Joey, the would-be professional boxer, has, as his father admits with rare honesty, only one problem: “You don’t know how to defend yourself and you don’t know how to attack.”

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