A taste of honey money

The Homecoming, Swan Theatre Stratford, 20 August 2011

This production had me enthralled before a word was spoken. The set was decked out with period furniture of exactly the same type that my grandparents’ house had once contained. Sat looking at the stage before curtain up, I was transported into a world of memories.

The RSC’s 50th birthday revival of The Homecoming also chimed with contemporary events in 2011. Its opening coincided with the publication of “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” by Catherine Hakim, a book which pointed out that women have something that men desperately want and that they should extract value from this situation.

Viewed in this light, The Homecoming appeared to be the story of a woman who had taken these conclusions very much to heart.

But at the start of the performance the focus was on the men in the family. Max rummaged for nearly a minute in the sideboard drawer looking for his scissors bringing a note of comedy to the first moments of the play. The verbal scrapping between the family members made them look like a bunch of thugs: not the kind of environment to produce a professor of philosophy.

Jonathan Slinger as Lenny cut a subdued but menacing presence. He adopted a quiet, childish voice when jokingly pleading with his father Max not to hit him.

When the estranged Teddy and his wife Ruth walked through the door into the house, they paused in the hallway before stepping down into the main part of the stage representing the living room. This was a series of slow and deliberate movements which made it look as if they were astronauts stepping onto the surface of an alien world.

But of course Ruth was the real alien. She was self-possessed and uncontrollable, as Lenny soon found. Ruth’s slightly sarcastic “Good” in reply to Lenny’s statement that Max would be pleased to see her, brought a biting “What did you say?” in reply. Lenny’s snarling caused Ruth’s follow-up “Good” to be more polite, but she was not contrite. This initial skirmish showed her to be in control and Lenny to be brittle.

Lenny tried to impress by regaling her with a story of his toughness. As the details emerged about his thuggishness, Ruth did not react. She seemed unconcerned, as if this tale of violence and prostitution were nothing out of the ordinary.

After the famous confrontation over the glass of water, culminating in Ruth challenging Lenny “Why don’t I just take you?” she got up from her seat and took the glass over to Lenny and asked him to have a sip. This was more confident and assured than the text’s stage direction that has Ruth simply offer the glass to Lenny while seated.

The start of the second half showed Ruth in a more traditional female role. The men came into the living room from the dining room in a fog of cigar smoke. Ruth shuffled around offering them coffee. She seemed to enjoy fitting in with this hypermasculine environment that the men has suddenly created around them. Ruth appeared as docile and compliant as a geisha.

Ruth looked at Max and looked Joey up and down, a first indication of her attraction to the boxer.

Her apparently submissive female behaviour, handing round coffee for the men smoking their cigars, was suddenly undercut. Ruth took a cup of coffee and walked over to Lenny with it.

Lenny and Ruth’s positions and movements precisely replicated the earlier scene in which Ruth, alone with Lenny, had showed her dominance of the situation by taking the glass of water to him and ordering him to take a sip. The only difference was that this sequence was now part of a larger group scene.

Both the audience and Lenny had now been reminded that she had a power of her own.

Lenny taunted Teddy with a philosophical discussion. Sensing somehow that she was being ignored, Ruth punctured this dry technical discussion by doing a Basic Instinct leg cross, accompanied by a speech that drew attention to her physicality.

Once the room was empty, Ruth sat in Max’s chair the symbolic throne of power in the household, curled up and sniffed its pillow. Lenny joined her. When she asked him if he liked her shoes, it was obvious from her posture that she meant her legs.

Oblivious to her husband’s requests to leave, Ruth remained and danced slowly and receptively with Lenny. When Joey took over from Lenny and danced with Ruth, he threw her down onto the floor and writhed on top of her. This replaced the fumble on the sofa and roll onto the floor. The action then continued as per the stage directions when Lenny touched Ruth with his foot as she lay on the ground.

She pushed Joey away and stood up, shouting out her requests for food and drink angrily and impetuously. This was an interesting directorial choice. Why, if she has discovered that she can use her erotic capital to get what she wants, is she upset on discovering this power?

Lenny searched in the sideboard for his cheese roll and as the main doors opened a menorah could be seen tucked away inside. This was the only indication, apart from a slight hint of accent from Max, that this was a Jewish household. It was a strange detail to include in a production because it was a blink-and-miss-it moment, but presumably a deliberate directorial decision with some relevance to the interpretation of the play.

The incident with the cheese roll was also a piece of period detail in that it showed a world before clingfilm and fridge storage of snacks.

The real twist in the play came when the family decided that Ruth could stay and provide them with domestic and sexual services, and also go on the game in order to pay for her keep. Teddy had to undergo the humiliation of his wife’s willing subservience to the family’s demands. As he mildly protested at events, his father Max summed it up nicely “What do you know about she wants, eh, Ted?”

She came downstairs, heard the family’s offer and, as Karim’s book suggests, exploited her erotic capital by bidding up her demands.

Final image of patriarch Max slumped begging in front of her was dreamlike in its symbolism suggesting the collapse of an insubstantial world of male power.

But did that world really collapse?

Both the play and Karim’s book can be criticised for confusing profitable subservience with power.

Ruth cashes in to collect her “honey money”, but it comes at the price of being a skivvy and a prostitute, albeit a high-class one. While the men, Max foremost among them, appeared to be the weaker at the end of the play, they had in fact determined the life that Ruth would live.

Put another way, how exactly have the men in The Homecoming lost out? If Ruth is getting what she wants, then so are they.

The casting of both Aislín McGuckin and Jonathan Slinger in this production evoked parallels between Ruth and Lenny and their characters in this season’s RSC Macbeth.

There were similarities in that both sets of characters existed in a relationship in which the female partner possessed more drive and backbone than the male. Lady Macbeth’s “Infirm of purpose” could just as well have been Ruth’s cry of triumph at Lenny and the rest.

Macbeth, like Lenny, thought he was a tough guy, but was shown to be vacillating and easily duped.

The play has not lost any of its power to disturb. The way in which The Homecoming unsettles its audience is more pertinent to its lasting appeal than its ability to provide satisfactory resolutions to its sexual politics.

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