It was billed as the most eagerly anticipated performance of the autumn in Paris. Well known for his roles in films from Wings of Desire to Downfall, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz has rationed his stage appearances since leaving the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble he helped found in the 1970s, and this French version of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe marks the 71-year-old’s first theatre role in six years.
It was worth the wait. As Pinter’s coarse, brutal patriarch Max, Ganz offers a study of old age turned sour amid entirely dysfunctional family relationships. The fact that French isn’t Ganz’s mother tongue works in his favour: where the other actors’ natural delivery occasionally smooths out the play’s nervous edge, Ganz’s deep, gritty voice conveys the very passive-aggressive violence that defines the character. When the verbal abuse comes, he goes for the jugular, spitting it out with the disturbing viciousness of someone who can only communicate in this way.
For his first new production as director of the Odéon, Luc Bondy soberly takes a back seat with a staging that serves the text and actors from start to finish. The new translation, commissioned by Bondy from the French author Philippe Djian, takes time to settle in, with some uneasy transitions between colloquialism and formality. The sets, a realistic, simple depiction of the family’s living room, are efficient, if a little too neat around the edges. The devil is in the simple details, with costumes and styling that bring out the family’s gaucheness – ill-fitting, high-waisted trousers, Uncle Sam’s comb-over, Lenny’s low-heeled leather shoes.
A star-studded cast flanks Ganz, and, much to Bondy’s credit, the performance coheres as a superb team effort. As Lenny and Teddy, Micha Lescot and Jérôme Kircher’s delivery of Djian’s translation is a rollercoaster of tension and oddity, while Louis Garrel (made famous by Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers) is barely recognisable with a working-class accent as the third brother, an aspiring boxer who does push-ups upstage in the middle of family feuds.
As should be, the only question mark surrounds the play’s sole female character, Teddy’s wife Ruth. Emmanuelle Seigner opts for Sphinx-like distance as Ruth agrees to stay with the family and replace the missing woman in their lives, becoming at once wife, mother and (literally) prostitute. The production subtly switches gears when the family floats the idea of pimping her, a turn of events Bondy chooses not to foreshadow. As a result, Pinter’s absurdist conclusion comes as an even greater shock, with Ruth’s fate a truly disturbing legacy.