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Putting the “Ha” Back in Harold Pinter

  • March 29, 2006

By Ruhayat X

The Homecoming, typical of Harold Pinter’s plays, starts out innocently enough, with a normal domestic scene between an old man and his son. It is not long, however, before you start realising that, as it is with life, what you see on the surface is not all that it seems.

The plot is simple: Max is a cranky elderly man who lives in a North London flat with two of his three sons (Lenny and Joey) and his younger brother Sam. One day, his eldest son Teddy comes home from America unexpectedly to visit with his wife, Ruth. Teddy’s return after six years sets the stage for unnerving conflict.

There are many ways to “read” a Pinter play, as my lecturer used to say, and this is surely mine: The Homecoming is a brilliant snapshot of a world dictated by the whims of men, within which women are reduced to being nothing more than performers who, like it or not, end up dancing to the tune if they want to “succeed” or even simply to survive.

Having been raised by five women with an absent father-figure — and guided by an egalitarian Quran — this is not a world that pleases me. This is why I had found The Homecoming to be particularly profound and heart-rending; it encapsulates the bitterness I feel about the way women are generally treated in my world. And it is why the major issue I have with Gavin Yap’s interpretation is that it all feels a bit like Harold Pinter Lite.

Of the four Pinter plays I had watched as a student in the UK, The Homecoming has always been the most disturbing. I remember that yes, it shared the same genesis as The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, but it struck a deeper truth in one who’s come from a staunchly patriarchal culture.

Written in 1964, this play perhaps no longer resonates as much in the London of today, but — Islamic Family Law and all — it’s still very much relevant to Malaysian society at large, I suspect.

Unfortunately, the brooding tension that is supposedly inherent in the characters doesn’t come across, nor does the atmosphere unnerve you (love the lighting and crisp set design, though). In fact, the men do not offend and the sole woman is stifling a giggle at the most inopportune times.

Let me state this clearly: the actors were, by and large, enjoyable enough. They took to their roles with glee, that much is apparent. But still…

Lenny (played by U-En Ng), the son with a clearly criminal bent, did not terrify me with his suggested malevolence (although Ng’s was the most entertaining performance for me that night). The cranky Max (aka. Thor Kah Hoong), with his distractingly flitting accent that is sometimes British and sometimes not, didn’t rub me the wrong way. And Ian Cheang’s Joey: why is he fluttering his eyelids like that? Isn’t he supposed to be thuggish?

I thought Ben Tan was marvelous as the hapless Teddy, who I’d imagine makes any woman want to throw vases and other potentially damaging objects at his head all the time. And Patrick Teoh was good throughout as Sam (that moustache was a brilliant idea), except for that — unintentionally? — comical fall at the end.

The sole woman (Loo Jia Wei as Ruth, Teddy’s wife), while reasonably self-assured in her sexuality and the effect it was having on the men (and audience), was perhaps too new to make a real impact — a couple of times you could see her struggling to stifle a giggle when the scene really could do without one from the woman at the centre of an intensifying power play.

Let me put it more simply: this performance didn’t make me feel guilty about laughing out loud.

This means I had a rollicking good time on Friday night, and if I had paid for my ticket I would have considered it money well spent. Yet I was not perturbed afterwards, which I should be. I wanted to go home to a warm blanket of melancholy, but I ended up feeling like I’d had a jolly good time indeed.

This troubles me because the heart of a Pinter performance is that uneasiness you feel as you join a crowd in royally laughing at the faults of others. This performance should make one feel like being a coloured person joining in the racist taunts on the terraces of an English football stadium, not a night out with the Instant Café Theatre.

It was interesting to see that they decided not to localise the play and kept the London setting, though they didn’t go the whole hog and went all Cockney. This has its pros and cons, but mainly cons, in my opinion.

Thor’s undecided accent, for one. Why didn’t they just make the patriarch a migrant from Asia with boys who had grown up really Bri’ish? That would have gone some way to narrow the gap of realism, perhaps. But then again, I always have this problem when watching British or American plays put on by, er, the natives.

And perhaps it was also just watching it with a Malaysian crowd, who — in my experience, at least — has a tendency to see boisterous fun in almost anything. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps: that’s just the trouble with men, isn’t it — always trying to fix things.

So I’ll just leave it at that, and end with an encouragement for you to go see The Homecoming. Be as it may, Pinter’s dialogue is still delightfully written and is best experienced when performed. Besides, when else will you get to see Thor do the occasional Eric Idle impression, eh?

The Homecoming is happening at KLPac – Pentas 2 from Fri 24 Mar – Sun 2 Apr 2006.


Ruhayat X loves his mother who calls him once a fortnight and plies him with food that keeps him fat and juicy.

First Published: 29.03.2006 on Kakiseni