Brighton Fringe 2019
Pretty Villain Productions at the Rialto Theatre presents Betrayal directed by Roger Kay, designed by him and lit by the Rialto production team with a natty seventies wardrobe. Sound is a recording of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music .
Harold Pinter’s 1978 Betrayal is his most autobiographical, if self-consciously innovative play. It precedes in reverse throughout its 1968-77 timeline, except in scenes from a particular year, two in 1977, three in 1973. Peeling back to a state of mutual (if on one side delayed) infatuation is redemptive. It’s also revealing of each character’s mainsprings, in their beginning finally figuring their end. That’s the theory. It’s also Pinter’s last great full-length work.
Directed by Roger Kay, design – simple chairs and table – is lit with a digital counter telling us the year and place by the Rialto team who also provide sound – a recording of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music between scenes and a quietly natty seventies wardrobe.
There’s usually a waiter in Betrayal, Scott Roberts making a quietly consummate appearance in a 1973 scene with mildly flustered Italian.
Spring 1977, and Sophie Dearlove’s contained Emma, a gallery owner, has asked to meet old lover Jerry in a pub. He’s a literary agent with a talent for talent, but one discovery might have rebounded. Emma seems an unhealthy admirer.
They’ve not met in the two years since their affair ended when they gave up their trysting flat in Kilburn (being well-off). Emma’s divorcing husband Robert, a publisher and Jerry’s oldest friend from Oxbridge. Robert’s confessed to numerous infidelities, so Emma’s confessed to her historic one with Jerry. That’s what she wants to tell him: for his sake, not hers.
Emma’s not admitting to either man a new affair with one Casey, though Jerry guesses. It’s a piquant moment. Robert hasn’t always acted on Jerry’s shrewder recommendations, flatly refusing this future best-seller. Casey though on a downward slope possesses rough charms despite drearily autobiographical novels. Now Emma, one feels, will feature in his next. Reminiscing about how Jerry played with Emma’s daughter brings a moment of wistful thaw.
Pinter suggests the innocent here is the lover, Neil James’ terraced and furrowed Jerry, played with an inwardness and attention to everything suggests that how he reads print is how he regards faces. James’ anxious lack of bragaddocio intimates that Jerry’s only disinhibits himself when drunk as in the last scene. Otherwise he’s watchful, expecting the worst. Jerry too is married – to hard-working hospital doctor Judith and like Robert and Emma they’ve two children. There’s a whiff that Emma’s probing whether Gerry would ever leave his wife.
There’s a key moment of male bonding in 1974 that chills Emma; by this time Robert knows. So burgeoning gallery responsibilities: afternoons are impossible; Jerry’s increasingly abroad.
It’s seeded in 1973: Jerry’s casually not telling Emma till she’s with husband Robert that he’s taking Casey, then a new author, to New York. And the glint of vengeance in Robert telling Emma he wants Jerry alone for squash, showers, beer, lunch, male talk; women aren’t welcome. Duncan Henderson’s chillingly blasé delivery is of a piece with Robert’s control over dialogue.
Casey’s the one whom Emma seemingly takes in Jerry’s place. Dearlove’s constrained Emma gives her self-possession, except in 1975 when anger powers her over their breakup. Pinter’s dialogue doesn’t explain why she finds Jerry attractive, save a shared smartness. Dearlove invests Emma with urgency, warmth and real passion in the early stages of their affair (hence later) and at its inception, stark surprise and enchantment.
Henderson’s Robert is all active bonhomie and urbanity, with a stiletto glint in reserve. Though Jerry uneasily puts their friendship in the past tense Robert insists it isn’t and recalls their failure to bond with squash-playing recently, as if this might resolve everything. Again squash-playing’s emblematic of honesty male bonding, a mild homoerotic charge. Now Casey’s playing.
Henderson’s touch of menace is sovereign, a paradoxical sense that it’s he who’s in charge somehow. Robert is the more robust predator.
Robert knew four years ago. Even in their 1977 meeting Emma’s lied to Jerry, though since she knew it would come out once broached, this seems more flashy than believable. Jerry now feels paradoxically betrayed by both husband and wife since the affair carried on for two years without him knowing the affair was open. Betrayal? Jerry’s wife for instance… Pinter’s emphasis here – like Emma’s lying about timing and her new lover – pitches up a misogynistic reading.
That’s underscored by Robert’s cheerful assertion that he’s physically abused Emma recently, just because he felt like ‘bashing her up a bit’. As if he’s playing squash with her, or using her as the ball to beat his friend at squash with. Again, you wonder who’s in charge. Again this seems to have strayed in from an earlier Pinter. It’s chilling.
We proceed through that painful last closing of the flat in 1975 with Emma tossing her Venetian gift of 1973 onto the floor: a tablecloth Jerry thoughtfully picks up. 1974 in Robert and Emma’s living room ripples in those tiny disruptions between the trio, those telling lacunae of loyalties, where Emma feels betrayed by being the last to know Jerry’s going Stateside for a bit with Casey. You can tell the affair’s a touch frayed. They’re beginning to become estranged, a lack of clear communication, perhaps too a taking for granted.
1973 brings three interconnected tableaux, Venice, the trysting flat where the tablecloth goes on, and a restaurant scene where Robert and Jerry bond over some authors and badinage over others. The 1971 trysting flat sense is the most touching, aching. Finally we’re at Robert and Emma’s bedroom where Jerry makes his first pass, interrupted by Robert.
For the most part Betrayal as realised here is sovereign if sparse, compellingly coiled to 70 minutes. There’s a variety of pitch and yaw in Pinter, within scenes; that’s trickier and the cast pull it off. Henderson superbly brings out Robert’s curious affection along with sinister notes: he’s intensely watchable. Dearlove manages transitions of mood from anger, an imperceptible chill in her love, warmth, abandon in a detailed journey of seven years. James, still enthralled throughout brings more worry than most – a man slightly out of his depth with the other two: it’s exactly right. This is one of Pretty Villain’s finest productions.