Betrayal - 1991

Programme Cover

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 man’s 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 Pinter’s narrative method takes "what next?" out of the spectator’s 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 play’s subject is not sex, not even adultery, but the politics of betrayal and the damage it inflicts on all involved. Even by Pinter’s standards, those politics become pretty intricate. For instance, we learn early on that the old friend, Robert, has known for years of his wife Emma’s 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 play’s encounters are similarly charged. It is like watching Kasparov circle Karpov’s 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. Leveaux’s 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 play’s 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 other’s 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

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