Betrayal, Almeida Theatre, London,
17th January 1991
Emma - Cheryl Campbell
Jerry - Bill Nighy
Robert - Martin Shaw
A waiter - Stefano Gressieux
Director - David Leveaux
Designer - Mark Thompson
Lighting - Rick Fisher
Sound - John Leonard, Alastair Goolden
When why usurps what next
by Benedict Nightingale
This is the first important revival of a piece disgracefully undervalued
when it appeared 13 years ago. Harold Pinter has admittedly written
more forcefully; but none of his plays, not even The Caretaker
or Old Times, has the emotional density of Betrayal.
As David Leveaux's wary production confirms, there is hardly a line
into which desire, pain, alarm, sorrow, rage or some kind of blend
of feelings has not been compressed like volatile gas in a cylinder
less stable than it looks. What upset the reviewers in 1978 was
subject matter that seemed annoyingly futuristic. The plot harked
back to a theatrical period when dramatists were obsessed by love-triangles
which, if not eternal, were certainly interminable. Yet since the
story started after a manís affair with his best friend's wife had
finished, ended with its beginning, and in between lopped this way
and that through time, Betrayal was also dismissed as gimmicky.
The answer is that Pinterís narrative method takes "what next?"
out of the spectatorís mind and replaces it with the rather deeper
"how?" and "why?". Why did love pass How did these people cope with
the lies, the evasions, the sudden dangers, the panic, and the contradictory
feelings behind their own deftly engineered masks? The playís subject
is not sex, not even adultery, but the politics of betrayal and
the damage it inflicts on all involved. Even by Pinterís standards,
those politics become pretty intricate. For instance, we learn early
on that the old friend, Robert, has known for years of his wife
Emmaís affair. She knows he knows, but her lover Jerry does not
know he knows or that she know he knows. See what I mean? A lunch
between the two men, Jerry fake-innocently asking after Emma, Robert
seeing through the ruse yet humouring him, seethes with unexpressed
guilt and anger. Almost all the playís encounters are similarly
charged. It is like watching Kasparov circle Karpovís queen, not
knowing when, how or if he will pounce.
photo by Ivan Kyncl
A play in which people often say what they mean,
nor mean what they say, makes obvious demands on actors and audience.
Leveauxís production manages simultaneously to be simple and tantalising
inscrutable. That's to say, , his cast proves expert at keeping
us both abreast of what we need to know, the situation and plot,
and involved enough to speculate about what we can never fully know,
the motives behind the playís assorted treacheries. Why for instance
does Robert not confront the cheat Jerry? Because he is an English
sophisticate, has himself been having clandestine affairs, is frightened,
doesn't care, or wishes to keep a friend he likes better than his
wife? In Pinter, as in life, the answers to such questions are hardly
simple. But they allow Martin Shaw, a sardonic Robert and Bill Nighy,
a wistful Jerry, to exchange looks that go beyond the merely penetrating.
They seem, almost, to be attempting to spy on each otherís souls
while remaining behind their private barricades. Somehow they contrive
to be null, blank and yet alert.
Cheryl Campbell, too, has mastered the art of doing
little yet implying much. When Shaw's Robert discovers the affair,
here Emma has only to become very still to suggest the dread within.
Again, there is no mistaking the bleak grief behind the tight smiles
when, at the play's start and the story's end, she realises she
has lost both men. There, on her face, is what betrayal has meant
It is just one of many quietly eloquent moments in a riveting evening.
The Times, 23rd January 1991