Inspired by a seven-year affair between celebrated British playwright, screenwriter, director and actor Harold Pinter and television presenter Joan Bakewell, the silences say as much as the words. In fact, when he had finished writing the play, Pinter sent it to Bakewell, who was shocked her life was being raked over. As she read through it she could see many details had been changed for dramatic effect.
In his 1996 biography of Pinter, Michael Billington got him to admit that many of his plays originated from specific experiences he had had. Pinter, who was born on 10th October 1930 and passed away on 24th December 2008 had a writing career than spanned more than 50 years and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Betrayal was first produced by the National Theatre in London in November 1978 and Pinter adapted it as a screenplay for a 1983 movie starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge.
So, to the plot… Emma is married to Robert, but for seven years she had an affair with Jerry, Robert’s best friend and the best man at their wedding. Betrayal starts in 1977, two years after the relationship ended (when Jerry and Robert are both aged 40 and Emma is 38) and then works backwards to its beginning in 1968. There are nine scenes in all and the stage in encircled by clothes racks that rotate between scenes, enabling both costume and set changes during brief black out periods. It is an extremely effective device and plaudits go to set and lighting designer Geoff Cobham and associate designer Ailsa Paterson. At the back of the stage a time frame and location is displayed as each scene is played out.
Set primarily in London, Betrayal is essentially a three-hander, with one scene involving the addition of a fourth actor who plays a waiter. Events unfold like a thriller with cross and double cross, leading us – the audience – back to the how the affair began. Even the music used between scene changes is sinister and searing.
The performances are just so authentic, so credible – Alison Bell as Emma, Nathan O’Keefe as Jerry, the man with whom she had the affair and Mark Saturno as Robert, her husband, while John Maurice is cast as the waiter. While Bell has worked with the MTC in productions including The Book of Everything, Constellations, Tribes, The Ugly One, Blackbird, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Doubt and King Lear, the other three are MTC first timers.
I loved the witty and, at times, melancholy interplay. While the words are sharp, so too are the prolonged silences that speak volumes and punctuate the action. Director Geordie Brookman, the Artistic Director of State Theatre Company of SA, who makes his MTC debut, has done an excellent job with the material.
Giving a speech at Sophia University in 1995, Pinter said he was always aware that his characters tend to use words not to express what they think or feel, rather to disguise what they think or feel. He said the words are acting as “a masquerade or a veil”. Pinter went on to observe that these modes of operation are hardly confined to characters in his plays. “In the world in which we live, words are as often employed to distort or to deceive or to manipulate as they are to convey actual and direct meaning.” That certainly applies to what passes as “truth” in Betrayal, which – excuse the pun – is a thoroughly engaging affair.
Betrayal, which runs for 1 hour 25 minutes without interval, is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 19th September and scores an 8½ out of 10.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television