“Go find yourself a mother,” bleats Max (David Bradley), the paternal crank who opens “The Homecoming,” and by the end of Harold Pinter’s 1965 play he and two of his three sons have invited into their north London home Ruth (Lindsay Duncan), who is both mother and whore. That she is virtually deposited there by a third son, husband Teddy (Keith Allen), is among the lasting jolts of a play guaranteed to leave diehard feminists sputtering no less vocally than Max. But pay close heed to the text, and to Roger Michell’s superb Royal National Theater revival, and the play allows another response, as well. For all its skillful anatomizing of the power struggle amongst men, isn’t it telling that the woman in “The Homecoming” is the one to end up exerting the play’s tightest grip?
Michell is new to the Pinter canon, and he provides just the welcome blast of detailed, interpretive air from which the play benefits if it is not to seem self-conscious, sexist, or both. Abetted by an extraordinary design team in William Dudley (sets and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Michell creates a suggestive dreamscape poised forever on the edge of nightmare, whose flare-ups of violence — and furtive bursts of eroticism — are glimpsed through the gauzy half-light of a set that is sure to be one of the scenic highlights of the theatrical year.
Unusually, Dudley shows us both levels of the house shared by Max, sons Lenny (Michael Sheen) and Joey (Eddie Marsan), and Max’s brother Sam (Sam Kelly), a private chauffeur who feeds off praise from rich American clients. At first, the high-walled space seems merely shabby and arid (and ’60s period-perfect). But as befits Max’s obsession with “order and clarity,” the set is revealed to have its own neat logic, too. Look up, and one glimpses the remnants of childhood — a high chair, a pram — among the detritus piled above in the flies, while the main room exudes a tidy, faded chill in keeping with a family of men clamping down their desire until Ruth’s arrival sends the collective libidos into liftoff.
Whose “homecoming” does the play relate? On the surface, Teddy’s, an academic returned from America with Ruth, his English wife of six years whom the family has not previously met. But as Ruth takes control, she wins the territorial skirmish: By the second act she has them all in thrall, an inscrutable siren singing an eerily potent song who shifts from being the object of barter to a person notable in the final image for prompting her own pieta.