The Homecoming Review

Peter Hall’s 1967 stage production of the The Homecoming is regarded as the definitive interpretation of the Harold Pinter’s seminal drama. Hall’s own filmed version in 1973 for the American Film Theatre features most of the original stage cast, makes limited changes to its presentation, but still very effectively conveys the intense power of what remains a rather disturbing play.

Teddy (Michael Jayson) returns to his North London home with his wife, Ruth (Vivien Merchant). He has been absent for a number of years, his family unaware of his work as a professor of philosophy in an American college or even of the existence of his wife. The return home is not the most welcome one – Ruth is described by loud-mouth father Max (Paul Rogers) as a “stinking pox-ridden slut”, and Ted’s brother Lenny (Ian Holm) makes menacing advances towards her. The home is seething with family secrets, battles for domination and masculine power games and the presence and behaviour of Ted’s wife brings out the darkest, vilest attitudes in all of them.

As in the Pinter directed American Film Theatre version of Butley, there is no “opening-out” of the play for the screen. It is filmed completely faithfully to the play version, only making use only of four walls instead of the stage’s three. Peter Hall uses other camera techniques to increase the claustrophobic intensity of the drama. He uses montage editing that matches the rhythm of Pinter’s precise dialogues and pauses and relentlessly exposes the characters through harsh lighting that constantly keeps everything in focus, leaving nothing hidden or unspoken.

The Homecoming is not a pleasant play to watch and it can be very difficult to follow. The characters are, without exception, extremely dislikeable, bitter, vicious and violent. It seems like Pinter has taken the worst characteristics of human nature and pushed them ever so slightly into caricature, making the development of the plot and the actions of the characters slide into savage absurdity. If that were so, the play would just be an interesting surrealist experiment but in actuality it is firmly moored in realism. The difference is that the characters in The Homecoming vocalise and act out the worst attitudes and characteristics of human nature that are normally suppressed or not communicated. There is nothing in the play, no matter how vile and extreme, that is not true to how people think and behave – or at least how Pinter believes they would behave if they gave vent to their baser impulses.

For this reason, The Homecoming is a hugely important and highly regarded play, but one that I personally have never been able to fully appreciate. It’s not just that the characters are so vile, it’s that I personally don’t recognise or relate to these as universal characteristics and certainly not typical of any family dynamic that I am aware of. If not actually misogynistic (Ruth seems to hold her own in the male dominated household, even if it is in a male-defined bi-functional maternal/whore role) the play, by focussing exclusively on the baser human instincts is certainly misanthropic, with not a glimmer of hope, warmth, love or compassion to be found in a single line of the text. This is of course the intent of the play, but one that makes it extremely difficult to relate to. Making you uncomfortable however is precisely what makes the The Homecoming so powerful and that is admirably conveyed in this film version.

The Homecoming along with Butley are the first releases from the new inD label, which will be releasing all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases features a substantial number of high quality extra features. The DVDs are encoded for all regions.

The video quality on the DVD release of The Homecoming is slightly better than the transfer of Butley, but not by much. Some of the problems and the colouration seem to be down to the original film elements, as quality can vary from scene to scene. A scene of dialogue between two characters can inter-cut between a very grainy, discoloured image and a sharper, clear scene. The harsh, unusually bright lighting could be why the colours often look dull and bleached. There are however elements of the actual DVD transfer that give rise to problems, notably the constant flickering of backgrounds and sometimes foregrounds caused by macro compression. On the whole though there is nothing as distracting as the telecine wobble in Butley and the print is generally free from marks or scratches.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and it remains strictly centred. Voices are quite clear and dialogue is clearly audible, even though the soundtrack is rather thin and harsh.

Interview with Sir Peter Hall (26:48)
Peter Hall talks about the differences between theatre and cinema and how The Homecoming as a piece fits in between. He also goes into detail on how a director and actor should work with Pinter’s dialogues and pauses. On the preservation of drama as film, he’s less in favour than most, seeing theatre as contemporary, not something fixed – needing re-interpretation to remain vital. It’s a valid point and a good interview.

Interview with David Watkin (24:47)
Cinematographer Watkin relates the challenges of lighting and photographing The Homecoming. From the comments made, I’m not sure that it has been accurately transferred on this DVD release. He also worked on A Delicate Balance for the AFT series and goes into detail and provides many anecdotes about working on that. I would suspect that this interview will be duplicated on the DVD of that film.

Interview with Otto Plaschkes (21:46)
The Executive Producer of the AFT series talks about the approach to putting these famous plays onto the screen. This is the same interview that is present on the Butley DVD. It might have been better to break these interviews up for the relevant releases rather than duplicating them on each release, as they take up a considerable amount of space on each DVD.

Interview with Richard Peña (20:42)
The director of the New York Film Festival and Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre presents a fine overview of the whole American Film Theatre project, enumerating its attributes and identifying particularly outstanding performances.

AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for Butley (2:53), The Homecoming (2:29) and the next releases in the series, A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Ice Man Cometh (2:37), The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), Rhinoceros (1:50) and The Maids (2:57).

AFT Cinebill
These are like theatre programme notes, divided into three articles. Pinter on Pinter is a prizegiving speech by the playwright reflecting on his own work, how he comes to write and what it means for him. People on Pinter provides some famous theatre-goers reactions to the The Homecoming. Peter Hall on Pinter talks about how he worked with Pinter on drawing out the play's meaning when first putting in on in the theatre. Excellent articles, they all contribute to a better understanding of the play.

Stills Gallery and Posters
Eight black & white stills and one poster.

Changing Rooms”, by Peter Hall, written for The Guardian in December 2003. Hall talks about the extreme reactions to the play when it was premiered in Cardiff, the West End and Broadway. Again good information, but most of it is duplicated elsewhere in the DVD extra features.

I first saw the Homecoming in a revival of the same Peter Hall production in London in 1990 with Warren Mitchell ("Alf Garnett") perfectly slotted into the role of the father, Max and it strikes me that the balance between realism and absurdity that is often skirted in The Homecoming is better suited to the heightened atmosphere of a theatre than, as Hall admits in his interview, the movie-camera that craves realism. No amount of opening-up or rewriting would make The Homecoming work any better on the screen, so it is handled faithfully according to its original theatrical specification here on the American Film Theatre film version. The quality of the actual print, while not great, is probably not a major consideration here and the superb range of interesting and relevant extra features (with this play, you need all the supplemental material you can get) certainly make this a complete and fascinating DVD release.

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