Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Betrayal - State Theatre Company

Review by John Lombard

Before the play starts we are cautioned to turn off our mobile phones, not just out of respect to the performers, but respect to a playwright who is famous for his silences. Harold Pinter's Betrayal is certainly replete with his trademark silences, moments where characters retreat into their heads and the audience is left studying facial expressions. But Betrayal is more than its silent moments (and there are many of them), with Pinter's sublime craftsmanship creating amazing, unique effects that transcend his sometimes self-defeating stylistic quirks.

Betrayal begins with the end of the affair, with adulterous couple Emma (Alison Bell) and Jerry (Nathan O'Keefe) meeting for the first time in the two years since they ended their epic seven year liaison. Emma has discovered that her husband Robert (Mark Saturno) has been having affairs of his own and they are now ending their marriage. Rather than jumping at the chance to leave his wife and child and be with Emma, Jerry is instead appalled that Robert now knows about the affair. Amazingly, despite screwing his wife for the best part of a decade, Jerry still regards Robert as his best friend. With the truth out Jerry faces the music in a tense tete-a-tete with Robert, only to discover Robert has a revelation of his own: Robert had in fact known about the affair for years.

That would itself be an amazing setup for a play, but Pinter has something else in mind. From there on we travel back in time, telling the story of the affair in reverse. This inverts the conventional structure of a tragedy, with the darkness and suffering giving way to the romance and flirtation of adultery in bloom. This is what produces the most powerful moments of the play: we have the dramatic irony of knowing what is in store for the characters in the future as we take guided tour of their blithe past. Jerry in particular is a fascinating psychological study, determined to be everyone's friend and with a child-like conviction that his affair doesn't matter if nobody ever finds out about it (tellingly, the play is inspired by Pinter's own Olympic-length adulteries). Robert is stolid and crass for much of the play, but it is amazing to watch the weight of his pain lift from his shoulders until he ends the play joyful and innocent of his future.

This production is haunted and ghostly, with the frequent hitches in the action giving the sense of a reflection in a shattered mirror. The audio transition between scenes is jarring to the point of being brutal, its loud tone and discordant sound actively unpleasant to listen to. The actors embrace their Pinteresque silences with gusto, running the changes on facial expressions that are not always quite visible to the entire audience (the production would be most effective in a very small theatre where every detail is clear).

In the first scene, where Emma and Jerry have an superficially quite dull conversation, the painfully long lulls are powerful. But the returns on these moments diminish to the point where near the end of the play when the action was halted for yet another brooding reflection I wished the characters would just get on with it and advance the story. Rather than naturalism, it becomes extremely artificial, especially with noticeably awkward blocking forcing Robert to stare out of a series of imaginary windows, resolutely unwilling to turn towards anyone he is talking too.

But Pinter has always been a controversial playwright. I was as impressed with his flashes of brilliance as I was at times annoyed with his idiosyncratic style. The piece is demanding for the actors, and the performers acquit themselves in their difficult parts. Alison Bell's Emma is a particularly fascinating characterisation, with a genuinely enticing sexuality and and a Mona Lisa smile that suggests she is keeping further secrets from both of her men (whether she began another affair after Jerry is the great unresolved question of the play). Boldly the characters debate whether there is anything further to say on the subject of betrayal even as the play conducts a virtuoso exploration of infidelity that still feels fresh. It's just a shame that, like so many couples in the 70s, the couples didn't just embrace swinging. Things would have been so much simpler.

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