Thursday, August 20, 2015


Betrayal by Harold Pinter

Directed by Geordie Brookman. State Theatre Company of South Australia. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. August 19 - 22 2015.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Alison Bell as Emma in Betrayal

“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive” Well, there is nothing tangled about playwright Harold Pinter’s succinct and pointedly realistic portrayal of characters caught in a web of betrayal or the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s dazzlingly clear and illuminating interpretation of Pinter’s “Betrayal” . To a twenty-first century audience, Pinter’s 1978 account of the triangular conduit of deception between art gallery owner, Emma, literary agent, Jerry and Emma’s philandering publisher husband, Robert may seem a little passé. It would be easy for a contemporary audience to view Pinter’s pared back account of betrayal as rather trite, presenting as it does a series of brief encounters in reverse chronological order. The ninety minutes without interval pass swiftly, leaving an audience longing for more, and possibly wondering what all the fuss was about.
Nahtan O'Keefe as Jerry and Alison Bell as Emma
This would indeed be a trite assessment of Pinter’s mastery of the direct statement disguising a dense and meaningful subtext. Director, Geordie Brookman uses the pauses to full effect to fill in the unuttered truth. It is to the credit of the three actors, a remarkably poised and composed Emma (Alison Bell), the emotional and slightly facile Jerry (Nathan O’Keefe) and the chauvinistic, acerbically arrogant Robert (Mark Saturna ) that the silence speaks volumes about the thoughts and feelings in the weighty moment of contemplation. Pregnant with meaning each pause is greeted by an expectant and absorbed audience and punctuated by Pinter’s consequent punchline.
It would also be facile to assume that the play was primarily concerned with adultery.  Pinter paints a far broader and more complex canvas of betrayal and each character’s private response to  the consequences of their infidelity. Through nine interconnected reverse scenes, commencing with a 1978 meeting between former lovers, Jerry and Emma, and concluding with the beginning of the affaire in Emma’s house in 1968, Pinter’s self-revelatory expose examines a complex web of betrayals. Most obvious is marital betrayal. Jerry betrays his unseen wife, Judith. Emma betrays Robert, Robert betrays Emma and Emma continues to betray Robert with an affaire with rising writer and Jerry’s client, Clancy. There is the betrayal of trust and the betrayal of male mateship. Jerry was best man at Robert and Emma’s wedding. Robert has not revealed that he has known about the affaire for years, and to add fuel to the distrust Emma has lied to Jerry about revealing their affaire to Robert. The true complexity of Pinter’s masterly construct of dialogue and situation, combined with his clever reversal of events accentuates the complex nature of character and situation. However each scene is crafted with succinct purpose and clarity, providing actors with a wealth of information and the freedom to create a character that lives out the complexity of a life tainted by betrayal.
Mark Saturna as Robert
Actors and director faithfully and believably observe the deep personal resonance in this work. The production resounds with the truth of human frailty, which one assumes is Pinter’s own observation of his own weaknesses after his affair with television presenter Joan Bakewell and the break-up of his marriage to Vivien Merchant. By his own admission, the play has nothing to do with his affaire with novelist Antonia Fraser, and he candidly states that the play is about a nine year relationship between two men. He traces the passage of friendship from the university days to the revelation of betrayal, exposing as he does so his own weaknesses and the entrenched attitudes of his time. Robert can quite frankly admit to bashing his wife when the occasion warrants it, with no retaliatory response from Jerry. It is an admission that draws an audible gasp from the audience while also pointedly exposing the male chauvinist attitudes of the time.  Audiences are voyeurs of an era now past, and yet transparently evident in our time.

Nathan O'Keefe as Jerry and Mark Saturna as Robert
What prevents Pinter’s play from being a soap drama of its time is perfectly displayed in State Theatre’s production. The stark reality of the scenes is heightened by the superb theatricality of Geoff Cobham’s lighting and set design of a moving revolve of Alisa Paterson’s selection of closet clothing that revolve to Jason Sweeney’s strident and tension-building  sound design. Within the kaleidoscope of revolving apparel, the actors and stage crew set the necessary furniture for the next minimalist scene. The reality of the scene is enveloped in a striking theatricality of design that captures an audience’s attention and imagination. Brookman’s direction complements the technical effects with precision, observing the musicality of Pinter’s sparse text and directing his actors with punctilious fidelity to the play’s relationships, superbly realized by his cast.

Alison Bell as Emma
It is praise enough to declare that we were left wanting more, contemplating the complexity of the human condition and confident in the belief that frailty thy name is humanity.