Betrayal (1978), written in mid-career by British playwright and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, shows a departure from his bleaker early plays of the 1950s. The crass underbelly of society in The Birthday Party and The Caretaker has been replaced by middle-class respectability. Betrayal is a three-hander, played out between a publisher, his wife and her lover, who is a literary agent and the husband’s best friend. Although the betrayal of the title is etched into the lies and machinations of these characters, they are average people, considerate and well-meaning. Just like us.
Perhaps the change in Pinter’s worldview reflected the sunnier zeitgeist of the 1970s and his own maturity, but the characters and plot of Betrayal certainly owed something to his own life circumstances. Like his character Jerry, he had been having an extra-marital affair (with television presenter Joan Bakewell) for seven years. In Betrayal he turns his astute observation of human behaviour on himself. The results are both hilarious and heartbreaking.
This Melbourne Theatre Company production, which has already completed a State Theatre Company of South Australia season, keeps the 1970s setting, but gives it a fresh image with a neat revolving device for changing costumes and sets (by Geoff Cobham) and an overpowering soundtrack (by Jason Sweeney) that welds mellow piano with metallic noise. They opened the show and were a hard act to follow: the actors had trouble establishing the right dramatic note for the first scene, where love has turned sour and words have dried up.
This play presents several challenges for director Geordie Brookman. Pinter employs an unusual chronology, in a series of nine scenes, working backwards in time from the end of the affair in 1977 to its beginnings in 1968. The reversed structure succeeds in unraveling the plot and focusing our attention on these nine moments of crisis and how the characters reached their endpoint. The timeframe is signposted electronically at the beginning of each of the nine scenes, but it is still easy to get confused.
The focus of this production is on realism. Alison Bell’s Emma is fleshed out by her talent for naturalistic acting, blossoming as the play unfolds from her older, frustrated self to a younger, more hopeful and spontaneous woman. But she fails to convey the tragedy of the woman and the poignancy of her doomed attempts to make a ‘home’ with her lover, Jerry. Nathan O’Keefe, as Jerry, delivers his lines with casual abandonment, good humour and optimism, but with little subtlety and even less passion. Only Mark Saturno as Emma’s husband Robert, explores the darker undercurrents of the play, revealing a jealous, controlling and spiteful nature that has grown in the culture of betrayal. He is the one actor who does justice to the nuances of the script.
Pinter is known for his truncated dialogue and long pauses, and these caused a stumbling block in this production. Pinter’s dialogue has a rhythm, a kind of poetry of banality, which creates dramatic tension. In this play, the pauses are for the unsaid words, the moments of impasse when we baulk at honesty and fail to connect with the interlocutor. These are the moments when the truth is trembling to be told. Yet, in this production, when words failed them, the actors invariably turned away, self-absorbed. Only Saturno kept the dramatic tension, even when he could not bear to look at his wife.
Pinter referred to speech as ‘a smokescreen…a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.’ A greater sense of that naked truth, and the ways in which we betray it, would have been welcome here.
Melbourne Theatre Company in association with State Theatre Company of South Australia presents
by Harold Pinter
Director Geordie Brookman
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 26 August – 19 September 2015
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm;Wed 1pm & 8pm;Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Duration: 1 hour, 25 mins
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800
A State Theatre Company of South Australia production