Pinter is known for his understatement of emotions and cryptic small talk. In Betrayal Pinter uses both to reveal the layers of deceit involved in a love triangle between a man, his wife and his best friend. There is no great upheaval, voices rarely rise in anger, even when the husband learns of his wife’s adultery the anger is measured, there are just the bare facts and a candid observation of the shallow emotions at the heart of betrayal. What is untypical about this Pinter play is that everything is elucidated. We understand the relationship between the characters and what is happening on stage. There are no mystifying, enigmatic pauses.
The story of this love triangle is told in reverse chronological order, starting in 2003 and ending in 1994. This device enables one to ask throughout the play if the forbidden fruit of an extra marital relationship was worth the cost of the betrayal that followed.
The first scene is of an awkward meeting between the two ex-lovers in a pub, 2 years after their affair ended. Initially it is Jerry who dominates the conversation as he recalls how he and Emma were able to conceal their relationship from family and friends. He boasts of how shrewd it was of them to have a love-nest in Kilburn as none of their friends would ever go there, and how his best friend Robert, Emma’s husband, had no suspicion of their relationship. However, when Emma confides that she is considering separating from Robert because of her feelings of pain and betrayal at the recent discovery that Robert had been unfaithful, Jerry finds himself suddenly adrift. Why had his best friend not confided in him about his extra-marital relationships? What other secrets may his best friend be concealing?
What makes this play so interesting is watching the characters skirt around each other’s ‘truth’, watching as each tries to conceal what they believe the other does not know. We watch old truths become falsehoods and falsehoods become new truths.
Hugo Speer’s Robert exudes resentment as he swallows his anger with each swig of wine. Aden Gillett’s Jerry is self-assured and mildly conceited, but quickly loses his bearing when he realises he too had been betrayed. Janie Dee as Emma captures the enigmatic alluring quality that one so readily associates with a Pinter female character. Her Emma is never beset with guilt even when she is full of regrets.
John Gunter’s set design matches the fragility of the on-stage relationships. Items of furniture, children’s toys, and street signs are entangled together in a large unstable looking pile. If one was to attempt to remove any item, one imagines the whole pile would come tottering down. The bed in Emma and Jerry’s love nest is quickly transformed into the couch in Emma’s home, or the bed that Emma shares with her husband on a holiday trip in Venice. The bed, when not in use, lies hidden beneath this tottering pile of false memories. The fragility of their lives has been built around their hidden sexual encounters.
Pinter shows that it is not necessarily the major betrayals that destroy us, we often learn to endure them, but it is the accumulation of the smaller lies and deceptions that mass around such a betrayal that undermines our lives.
Peter Hall, who first directed this play 25 years ago at the National, brings a plaintive touch to Pinter’s candid observation of betrayal.
What other critics had to say.....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Janie Dee's glowing performance..." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Fine revival." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Absorbing production." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "When it comes to adultery, few contemporary plays match Harold Pinter's Betrayal."