York Theatre Royal’s artistic director is responding emphatically to my question about how well he considers Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming to have aged. First produced by the RSC, the play has gone on to become one of the Nobel-winner’s most applauded, despite the bemusement that it caused some critics at the time, and won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play. Following a production of The Dumb Waiter in 2007 that passing pens were less hesitant to sprinkle with superlatives, he has now chosen to stage the play that Pinter once proclaimed to be his finest.
Cruden’s approach to Pinter is seemingly grounded in the principle that his work shouldn’t be treated differently to that of any other writer, despite its stubborn surfaces above thick subtexts. The difference is simply that more must be inferred about his characters. “A lot of people say, ‘Pinter’s enigmatic’, or ‘Pinter’s oblique – you can never really nail it down’, but actually that’s not true,” he says. “To do Pinter well I think you have to. All the characters have to be respected as being absolutely real, and the actors all need to know what they need to know to be able to play them. The plays are about convergences of divergent histories – you have lots of different strands of lives coming together down different tracks and they all meet. Some of them have been running parallel for longer than others and so on. Part of our role is to untangle all that and then work out what kinds of things might fit into those histories. That is how I think that Pinter works best.”
The Homecoming follows a young philosophy professor as he returns from America to the north London home where he was raised and introduces his now all-male family to his wife. As is often the case with Pinter, it’s an anorexic plot that forfeits most of its meals to allow the fattening of stationary, yet tense and gripping, drama. This is one of the similarities between Pinter’s writing and that of his friend and admirer Donald Freed that Cruden underlines when I ask about the rationale behind producing The Homecoming and Freed’s The White Crow in the same season. “Neither of them is obvious,” he says. “They don’t give you that traditional notion of a denouement that answers all the questions – the butler did it in the scullery with the pickaxe. They’re quite liberating inasmuch as they leave audiences the opportunity to be creative as participants. You’re always engaged in a process of constructing meaning from it, which all comes down to the fact that the narrative is more important than the plot. If anything, they both share that absolute conviction that what it’s about is not necessarily what happens.”
I ask Cruden why he thinks it is that the puncturing of a flimsy status quo stretched over simmering resentment can be so exciting to witness. “I think that’s very true of families,” he returns immediately. “Families have secrets. Communities have secrets. Nations have secrets. They have things about which there is deep guilt that sit inside them and are never exposed. They’re the things that people hide from. Some of them are very close and intimate, whereas others are shared by huge groups of people. Most great drama is about conflict that is both internal and external. The protagonist tends to disrupt the dormant or undisclosed internal conflicts that the other characters have. Conflict that only exists between two characters is just a fight. Both think they’re right – where do we go from there? The best drama happens when characters are in denial of something and the comfortable stasis in which they exist is disrupted. Then you’ve got your dynamic for drama.”
-Damian Cruden was talking to Simon Walker
The Homecoming will be at York Theatre Royal between 30 May and 20 June