This is an impeccable production of an important, deeply unpleasant play. Harold Pinter’s heightened domestic drama from 1964, in which an academic finally introduces his wife to the brutish all-male north London home he escaped, juxtaposes comedy and threat.
Matthew Dunster’s stylish production operates a notch above naturalism until the latent violence and misogyny of the script erupt in spotlit bursts, accompanied by percussive jazz. It’s a gripping watch but a hard one, even though Dunster gives the female character Ruth (Lisa Diveney) more agency than is usual.
Pinter in his early plays did more than Osborne or Beckett to jolt British theatre out of its postwar complacency. The household here is recognisable today but defined by violence. Patriarch Max (a bitterly funny, grizzled Jared Harris) is a butcher. Lenny, the son he is most nakedly antagonistic to, is a vicious pimp, played with a sense of springy, hooded-eyed danger by Peaky Blinders star Joe Cole.
Gormless youngest son Joey (David Angland) is a wannabe boxer and “in demolition”. Max’s fey brother Sam, a chauffeur (played with subdued comic flair by Nicolas Tennant), is taunted for his presumed homosexuality and murky car journeys. Max alternately eulogises his dead wife as a saint or derides her as a slut.
Into this toxic atmosphere come doctor of philosophy Teddy (Robert Emms) and Ruth. The family knows nothing of their marriage, three children, or their life in America. So they blithely process this visitation in the only way they know how, through a zero-sum exertion of power. Lenny leads the sexual intimidation of Ruth: she responds in kind.
Diveney is tremendous in the part. Physically slight and crop-haired, she has the insouciant saunter and watchfulness of a cat and can switch from predator to prey in a microsecond. Designer Moi Tran deserves kudos not just for the stark set but for a fabulously chic Sixties wardrobe for Ruth that gives her sexual power over these drab, stuck, postwar men. Lighting designer Sally Ferguson should also get her own curtain call.
This is a story about the impossibility of escaping your past, or your nature. Its flaw is that Teddy is a passive, insipid character compared to his male kin, and that in the world of the play, all women are whores. You can draw a direct line from this thinking to the online toxic masculinity of today, of course. But you don’t need that contemporary relevance to appreciate a terrific production that renders the play as both an authentic 1960s artefact, and a timeless study of aggression.
Young Vic, to January 27; buy tickets here