Thursday, August 20, 2015

Betrayal by Harold Pinter

Alison Bell as Emma
with the tablecloth from Venice
on the table at Jerry and Emma's flat

 Betrayal by Harold Pinter.  State Theatre Company of South Australia: Directed by Geordie Brookman.  Lighting and Set Designer, Geoff Cobham; Sound Designer, Jason Sweeney; Costume Designer and Associate Designer, Ailsa Paterson.  At Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, August 19-22, 2015.

Cast: Alison Bell – Emma; Nathan O’Keefe – Jerry; Mark Saturno – Robert; John Maurice – Waiter

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 19

How would you handle this situation?  You meet up with someone, on their invitation, with whom you have had an intimate relationship in the past.  You might say How’re you going, then?  We haven’t seen each other for a while, eh? and the other person hesitates a little, and then says No. It’s OK, I’m alright.

What do you think?  Do they know something I don’t know?  Why did they call me to meet up again after all this time?  Do they mean they really are OK, or are they just saying that?  If they aren’t really OK, what does that mean?  Do they want to tell me something because they think I should know whatever it is?  Or because they think I can help in some way?  And if they are really OK, then why did they call me?  Do they want to start up with me again?  Do I want to start up with them again?  If I do, should I say something?  Or should I just wait and see?  They haven’t said anything else, but it seems a bit ordinary just to say something like “That’s good, then”, considering how we were together before.  I’d better say something, I guess.  How long can we sit here?  Are they looking at me, waiting for me to say something?  Or are they just needing a quiet time, and don’t really want me to say anything?

As you read all these possible thoughts, try timing how long it takes, remembering that there will be gaps of time between thoughts, probably with changes in your expression (eyebrows, forehead, where your eyes turn, how your head moves, how your body relaxes or tightens up).  My timing suggests at least a full minute – which is a long pause on stage.

This a Pinter pause.  Some are much longer, maybe even up to three minutes, which ought to kill a drama stone dead – except that it doesn’t in a Pinter play.  It might if the actors were not skilled enough to give us the expressions which they will derive from their study of the play, the relationships between their characters, the history of their relationships, and the possible future of their relationships.

Pinter’s skill is to provide his actors with a back story, all put together in very ordinary language – in fact using words which in themselves are so ordinary they are more or less meaningless (Oh, for example).  Two productions of Betrayal will end up revealing to us the same basic story, but the picture we may have of the quality of the triangular relationship between Robert, Jerry and Emma will be different in its impact on us Peeping Toms according to each director’s and actors’ decisions in rehearsal and skills in performance.

If you’d like a detailed analysis of the nature of betrayal in Betrayal you could hardly do better than read Hanna Scolnicov’s 2008 essay available at .

My concern here is the quality of this production as a theatrical experience.  I have no complaints about the top-class professionalism of the actors or Geordie Brookman’s directing of them. 

I did find, though, that people with different sightlines had different responses to the need to see the subtle facial and bodily expressions of characters’ thoughts and feelings in those pauses.  I placed Nathan O’Keefe as having a stronger impact than the other actors, but in talking with other audience members, realised that from my seat (E6 – close to the stage-left proscenium wall) I had more consistently seen Jerry front on through several of the nine scenes, while Alison Bell’s Emma more often showed me a side-on or even partially rear view of her face.  From a stage-right position my viewpoint would have been reversed.  But then a friend who sat in the upper circle had not responded to the pauses’ intensity or detail merely because of her extra distance and higher angle of vision.  Opera glasses would have been an advantage, even in the Playhouse.

Our discussion led to wondering if the play would be better performed in a smaller theatre, perhaps preferably in-the-round, such as in the Ensemble, Belvoir Upstairs or Wharf 1 in Sydney.  Though Brookman made a point of praising Canberra’s Playhouse as a better venue than some others – unnamed – I wonder if its conventional fourth-wall proscenium design might not serve this play well.

This thinking led me to consider the stage, lighting and sound design for this production.  It’s a matter of big or small scale.  The set surrounds the stage in a big way between the scenes.  As it grinds its way around to reveal the next scene, the sound is raucous, aggressive and industrial in the earlier transitions (which are later in historical time) and become a little gentler as we approach the end of the play (which is the beginning of the story).  But the set visually remains big.

Yet each scene is small, often with only two characters, sometimes only one, and rarely with three.  Each scene has a single focal point (a bar, a restaurant table, the table in Jerry and Emma’s flat, Robert and Emma’s bed), and especially in those great pauses the action is minimal.  Between scenes, mysteriously half-hidden behind the semi-see-through set, the action is busy as furniture is moved into and out of the centre and actors change out of and into clothes hung on the stage side of the set.

I found myself unsure of the designers’ intention in making the scene changes visually large and audibly loud, sometimes with very bright floodlights in our eyes, while the scenes were lit to make them seem to take up only a small space on the stage, except for the final scene with Jerry, Emma and Robert in the bedroom – but even then the action was mainly restricted to a small area around the bed.  Perhaps there was a kind of Brechtian intention – that is to force us out of the assumption that we were seeing naturalistic scenes being played out for us to emotionally/sentimentally engage in.  The big scene changes made it clear we were watching a highly theatrical presentation. 

From a practical point view, there was a need to separate each scene and help us accept that time was going backwards and (once) forwards, which was done by adding big projected titles of the year, the location and the season of the next scene as the set spun around.  The costumes took us back to the fashion of each year, so perhaps the projected information was not entirely necessary, at least for those of us who recognise what the London literati wore in those years from 1968 to1977.  But at the end of the day I suspect that less giant and gimmicky scene changes might have given us a softer focus of attention on the words, silences and feelings in each scene.  Rather than having the sound effects between scenes seem to illustrate too obviously the bitterness of betrayal, perhaps romantic music might have better made the contrast between the conventional expectation and the reality of love.

So it’s a play and a production which should not be missed: for Pinter’s work and the quality of the acting.  But for me, less might have proved to be more, in the set and sound department.

Nathan O'Keefe as Jerry, Alison Bell as Emma
Meeting at the bar

Nathan O'Keefe as Jerry, Mark Saturno as Robert
Lunch at the restaurant

Nathan O'Keefe as Jerry
Alison Bell as Emma