Smoke gets in your eyes at the Young Vic – and right down your throat too. That’s thanks to the haze swirling around Matthew Dunster’s stylishly expressive revival of Harold Pinter’s 1965 play, in which the men are always self-consciously lighting a cigarette. Chaotic jazz rattles the nerves, too, amplifying the unsettling nature of a drama that constantly toggles between humour and horror.
Dunster’s thrust staging plunges us into the centre of this dysfunctional family, rudderless since the death of patriarch Max’s wife and mother to his three sons. The austere, faded furniture in Moi Tran’s thoughtful set conjures a home frozen in time, the dusky-pink sofa evoking that feminine absence. It’s both period piece and the icy framing for a brutal domestic psychodrama.
This striking portrait of masculinity in crisis is brilliantly led by Mad Men and The Crown star Jared Harris, making a welcome return to the British stage. His Max, though menacing, is also vulnerable and peevish from the start, visibly in pain, reliant on his walking stick, and petulantly complaining about his reduced status. He’s aghast when he discovers that oldest son Teddy and his new wife Ruth arrived without his knowledge – “I’m a laughing stock!” – and his tales of a macho past sound like the ramblings of a fantasist.
Joey’s pugilist ambitions also seem absurd. David Angland suggests an arrested development, possibly due to taking too many blows to the head. Joe Cole brings his Peaky Blinders swagger to the brooding, watchful Lenny, whose resentment of the interlopers explodes in motor-mouthed tirades. But he can’t follow through on his threats; he’s like a 21st-century incel venting on social media. Both he and Joey are reduced by Ruth to little boys, their sexual desire queasily muddled with their need for a mum.
In recent times, Ruth has been reclaimed as a liberated woman who makes her own choice to stay with this family and prostitute herself. Dunster initially gives us a very different, and fascinating, reading here. The slight Lisa Diveney, with her pixie cut and coquettish wardrobe (knee-high boots, gauzy feather-trimmed nightclothes, a figure-hugging gown with a slit), is every inch the girlish 60s model, but she weaponises her fragility – including mental health issues – to ensnare the men.
That idea is ultimately abandoned for a more conventional version of power, and Dunster blunts Pinter’s ambiguity with breakout fantasy sequences signalled by brusque lighting changes which literalise the implied violence and childhood abuse. But he does catch the play’s startling wit and poetry, and Nicolas Tennant, in particular, does wonderful comic work with Sam. Pathetically proud of his reputation as a reliable chauffeur, he bottles up brother Max’s needling in his bolt-upright, furiously repressed frame, only allowing a tiny release via the indignant bite of an apple.
As sweater-vest-wearing philosophy professor Teddy, Robert Emms coolly emerges as the real alpha here – another challenge to the traditional patriarchal ideas which have trapped his kin, and which undercuts the play’s misogyny. But Dunster doesn’t shy away from its sheer toxicity: it should, and does, produce a nasty shock.
Until Jan 27. Tickets: 020 7922 2922; youngvic.org