FringeReview UK 2018
Lewes Little Theatre’s production of Betrayal is directed by Peter Wellby, designed by David Moon utilsing the revolve, lit by Mike Batchelor who also provides sound, with recordings by Trevor Morgan and a natty seventies wardrobe by Kate Palmer.
We now know Harold Pinter’s 1978 Betrayal is his most autobiographical as well as self-consciously innovative play. That is, it precedes in reverse throughout its 1968-77 timeline, except in scenes from a particular year, two in 1977 and three in 1973. Peeling back to a state of mutual (if on one side delayed) infatuation is redemptive certainly, as director Peter Wellby points out. It’s also revealing of what each character’s mainsprings are, in their beginning perhaps finally figuring their end. That’s the theory. It’s also Pinter’s last great full-length work.
Pinter’s virtually never autobiographical, and his 1962-69 affair with Joan Bakwell has garnered more psycho-biographical attention than either he or Blackwell would have liked – her own riposte of a play, thirty minutes long and written in 1978, was aired on Radio 4 in April 2017. The point isn’t about the alarmingly faithful dramatization of the real-life details, but what in Betrayal, Pinter meant by it.
LLT’s almost casual assumption of set pre-eminence (only challenged by the extraordinary Brighton Little) has just scored up a notch in David Moon’s exemplary design, lit by Mike Batchelor who also provides sound, with recordings by Trevor Morgan and a natty seventies wardrobe by Kate Palmer where hemlines and flares flow back almost to summers of love. Out comes a revolve used only once, we’re told, in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in 1992. High time too. We’re treated to an extremely deft use of pub and flat interiors, Venetian splashed light in a hotel (Batchelor’s piece de résistance here), or living rooms. All these spin literally in and out of eyesight in a bright use of a wall covered with a different colour and on occasions, paintings. Various beds tables chairs litter as of need.
Elgar’s and Dvorak’s Cello Concertos pulse in and out too, mainly solo cadenzas. It might be a cliché to use Bach’s Cello Suites but it would make more sense if music’s judged necessary. Du Pré was all the rage but such heavy late romanticism sits awkwardly in actions designed as swift and elliptical (even those pauses). Only at the opening with Yesterday (admittedly an oldie by then) and bursts of Little Red Rooster through a bedroom door does the period’s sound glove round the action. The one niggle there is that the music’s too cleanly shut off where it should be faintly audible. But the last soundburst really tells, adding to the fervent, if slightly comic atmosphere.
There’s usually a waiter in Betrayal. LLT have gone further, adding a couple for the first scene, and two women later. It’s a good use of a hard-working team and adds a human amplitude to the sometimes brittle core.
Spring 1977, and Kate Lewis’ 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 of his discoveries might have rebounded. They haven’t met in the two years since their affair has ended when they gave up their trysting flat in Kilburn (these people are well-off enough for that). Emma’s finally divorcing her husband Robert, a publisher and Jerry’s oldest friend from Oxbridge days. 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, and flatly refuses one best-selling writer. Casey though on a downward slope possesses rough charms of his own 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 thaw and wistfulness to this scene.
Pinter suggests the innocent here is the lover, Chris Parke’s terraced and furrowed Jerry, played with an inwardness and attention to everything suggests that how he reads print is how he regards faces. Parke’s lack of bragaddocio intimates Jerry’s only ever able to disinhibit himself when drunk as in the last scene. Otherwise he’s watchful, expecting the worst. It ought to be mentioned that Jerry too is married to a hard-working hospital doctor and like Robert and Emma they have two children. They don’t really figure at all. There’s a whiff that Emma’s probing whether Gerry would ever leave his wife, but no more.
Pinter never directly reveals reasons for their love chilling, bar Emma’s burgeoning gallery responsibilities meaning afternoons are impossible, and Jerry’s increasingly frequent trips abroad. Perhaps 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. He’s the one whom Emma eventually takes in Jerry’s place after an unknowable pause. Lewis’ constrained Emma gives us much of Emma’s self-possession, though less of a clue as to why she finds Jerry attractive or even interesting, except a shared smartness.
Simon Hellyer’s Robert is all active bonhomie and urbanity. 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. Perhaps it will, since the mild homoerotic charge of this scene occasionally seems more intimate – certainly bonding – than the rather constrained ones between the lovers.
Hellyer’s vertical simmer finds a rooted command over his friend’s hunched frame, and works extremely well. There’s just a touch of menace excellently conveyed, a paradoxical sense that it’s he who’s in charge somehow. Robert it transpires is the more robust predator. Hellyer’s famed energy is poised in a man who’s unabashed at his friend’s guilt; he lopes confidently about the set, but with a containment of a different kind to Lewis’ Emma. Hellyer’s voice too cuts across Parke’s more ruminant watchfulness. It’s a remarkable contrast, much needed in the original.
Robert knew four years ago and indeed we find this is true. Even in their last meeting Emma has lied to Jerry, though since she knew it would come out once broached, this seems a curious plot point, more flashy than believable. Jerry now feels paradoxically betrayed by both husband and wife since the affair carried on for two ears without him knowing the affair was open. This might hurt a bit, but betrayal? Jerry’s wife for instance… You’d need a large ego for that and Pinter’s emphasis here – like Emma’s lying about timing and her new lover – pitches the play against her, and by association open up a possible 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. Here, only Hellyer’s energy convinces us it’s integral to Robert’s truculent, casual misogyny. It should shock and though it’s often played nervously for laughs, Hellyer allows it to register with his trademark chuckling savagery. It’s chilling; it says something about Pinter’s ambivalence too.
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 laziness or even taking for granted.
1973 brings three interconnected tableaux, Venice, the trysting flat where the tablecloth goes on, and a restaurant scene (with the two young women extras amplifying the hubbub with Chris Bowers’ waiter), where Robert and Jerry bond over some authors and badinage over others. The 1971 trysting flat sense is the most touching, aching emotions corresponding to the gushing letters Pinter wrote Bakwell, replicated in the programme, in a few telling phrases. Finally we’re at Robert and Emma’s bedroom where Jerry makes his first pass, interrupted by Robert, and the Rooster noises.
For the most part Betrayal as realised here is superb. There’s a sameness of pace, though reportedly not on other days. Ideally it should speed up towards the end when awkwardnesses fall away as exultant early love hoves into view, and to an extent in the 1971 scene it does. There also a variety of pitch and yaw in Pinter, within scenes; that’s a lot trickier.
Pauses in this production are icebergs knocking in the cupboard though, and a few could have been elided – indeed Pinter revised his own text, at least verbally, by shortening or removing these altogether. Parke is consummate, and Hellyer heroically restrained in one of the best performances this wonderfully energetic, resonant actor has given. Lewis is given less to express as Emma, and this is partly Pinter’s fault. Lewis ably conveys Emma’s poise and dignity, with an inherent sadness as well as a bitter twist to civil smiling. Perhaps a touch more brazen confidence could have spiked those male egos, a conscious power, sexual and intellectual. It’s difficult to judge Pinter’s aggressive passivities though perhaps he deserves all he gets from his actors. A really fine mid-season revival: after forty years, it’s good to see Pinter back. Perhaps this season presages more daring things to come.