Betrayal - Premiere

Programme Cover

First presented by the National Theatre, London 15 November 1978

Emma - Penelope Wilton
Jerry - Michael Gambon
Robert - Daniel Massey

Directed by Peter Hall
Designed by John Bury


Oh, to Be in England
Jack Kroll

Where else but in England could a fall season boast three major new productions by such giants of world theatre as playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard and director Peter Brook? While the New York season tries to get the lead out of its gas, the London theatre is in full throttle-in the West End (Londonís Broadway), on the Fringe (the equivalent to off-and off-off-Broadway) and at the publicly financed National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company.


Daniel Massey and Michael Gambon
photo Ivan Kyncl

The spectacle of the Nationalís two-year-old ablaze with activity in its three theatres, with live music, food, drink and conversation dispensed on all its levels, is enough to make an American feel positively colonial. When the opening-night audience at the Nationalís Lyttelton theatre last week consulted its programme for Pinterís new play, Betrayal, they found in the biographical material this stark sentence, placed there as the playwrightís insistence: ëSince 1975 has lived with Antonia Fraser.í With this sentence, pride and candour, Pinter briskly wrenches his well-publicisied affair with the beautiful aristocratic writer from the gossip mongers and places it in his art. Not that Betrayal is autobiographical; still Pinter is signalling something about the inspiration for his new play, in which the mysteries and metaphysics of No Manís Land are replaced by the oldest story in the civilised world, an adulterous love affair that breeds ecstasy and pain in its spiral of desire and deception.
Betrayal is an exquisite play, brilliantly simple in form and courageous in its search for a poetry that turns banality into a melancholy beauty. Perhaps with the experience of writing his (unfilmed) screenplay of Proust in mind, Pinter tunnels backwards in time, starting the play with a meeting between his adulterous lovers, Jerry and Emma, in 1077, two years after their seven year affair has died. In nine scenes we move back through the stages of the affair, until the play ends with its beginning in the house of Emmaís husband Robert, who is Jerryís best friend. Itís like watching a flower blossom backward, its petals inexorably closing.

Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton
photo Ivan Kyncl

Pinter has never written anything simpler, sadder or funnier than Betrayal. Itís about those banal twin demons, impossibility and necessity. Jerry and Emma love each other, and their love weaves a labyrinth of betrayals that extend beyond the relationship and touch something at the heart of every living creature. Emma betrays her husband; Jerry betrays his best friend and also his own wife, Judith (whom we never see). But it turns out that Robert has been betraying Emma with other women. And there is nearly an infinite vista of betrayals within the play: Jerry, an authorís agent, and Robert, a publisher, are successful figures in the publishing world, but Pinter hints that their careers are also betrayals of a deeper vision that they once had. Their ëcivilisedí acceptance of these endlessly breeding betrayals finally creates a quiet revulsion that brings the affair to a desolate close.
Pinter finds a grim but delicate beauty and humour in such desolation. Each line, each word, is a drop distilled from the sloshing mess of ordinary emotion. ëI donít think we donít love each otherí, Emma tells Jerry in their last meeting in the flat where theyíve shared seven years of stolen afternoons. The double negative is childlike in the pathos of
its pleading logic. Pinter is just as keen on the ambiguities of male friendship. ëIíve always liked Jerry,í Robert tells Emma after he finds out about the affair. ëTo be honest Iíve liked him rather more than Iíve liked you. Perhaps I should have had an affair with him myself.í And in the very last scene, Pinter hints that all three-Jerry, Emma and Robert-may have shared some mysterious complicity in their mutual betrayal.

By now, Pinter is like a fortunate composer who writes for musicians familiar with every rhythm and tone. John Buryís sets and lighting seem to hold the characters suspended in a luminous fatality. On opening night, things were somewhat nervous, but the preview performance also saw confirmed the tensile humour and humanity of the acting by Michael Gambon as Jerry, Daniel Massey as Robert and Penelope Wilton as Emma. Peter Hallís direction is ravishing in its sensitivity-although on opening night he made Jerry a bit too drunk in the last scene. Jerryís drunkenness reflects his intoxication with Emma; one falselurch can muddy that reflection. Betrayal is perhaps Pinterís most deceptive play. Behind its smooth pastel surface is a haunting vision of man as a creature trapped in an orbit of betrayal that sends him circling around the ideal without ever reaching it.
Newsweek, 27 November 1978

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