Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • BETRAYAL • Duchess Theatre • 2003

Detail from a portrait of Sir Peter Hall by his daughter Jennifer Caron Hall. [Wikipedia]

Detail from a portrait of Sir Peter Hall by his daughter Jennifer Caron Hall. [Wikipedia]

This dim, inert and unsexy production of Pinter’s famous and frequently revived play from 1978, is unfit for the West End Theatre and a disappointment after the same company’s widely admired production of Design For Living.

The Peter Hall Company has been committing flagrant commercial adultery in 3 plays this year, D H Lawrence’s The Fight for Barbara, Design For Living and Betrayal, the last two directed by Hall himself. The season at Bath at which they originated was themed on Love, and you don’t get a bigger theme in drama than that. (It included two plays in which Hall’s pretty 21 year old daughter Rebecca was cast in two demanding central roles, which frankly, is taking the piss, both out of audiences who deserve richly resourced performances, and other young actors, struggling to gain employment and experience in a notoriously harsh and unjust profession).

The three actors who have been touring in productions of Design For Living and Betrayal are all experienced but, as it turns out, not versatile enough to cross from Coward’s light to Pinter‘s bitter-dark comedy. They were generally considered to have successfully transmitted the delight in the ménage à trois of the consensual adults in Design For Living. In adulterous love, there are more complex and conflicting emotions to be conveyed. In addition, the actors have to overcome the technical challenges of Pinter’s deceptively simple language. The adultery in Betrayal is not open and is more difficult to sustain — there are children and games of squash involved — and the effect on the characters of keeping up their lies is one of Pinter’s main preoccupations. He is fascinated by the unreliability and falsity of memory. He uses his intricate time-structure to compare Emma and Robert’s different accounts of their trip to Venice. The beauty of the structure is not so much in the reversal of time, which would be simple, but in the freedom with which three scenes come chronologically, emphasising that it is individual memory rather than just events being recorded sequentially. We see the men digesting Emma’s lies from the preceding scene. The time device, taking us back and forth, allows their mental and emotional processes to be cross-examined. Are they uncomfortable because of guilt at hurting a partner’s feelings or because deception is hard work? Emma and Jerry manage to keep up an affair of dwindling passion for seven years: is it because their need for each other is overriding, or because it spices up their respective marriages? The one successful thing about Peter Hall’s production is the clarity in which we see the characters’ motives.

In this version, there is no grand passion: adultery is a middle class game to these people. Yet another betrayal is uncovered, this time of real emotion. Pinter reveals early on that the chief allure of an illicit affair for Emma is arranging the clandestine meetings: she regretfully contrasts the boredom of the present with how they were ‘inventive and determined in the past”. Single-minded Emma ends the affair; both her husband and her lover are disgusted when she chooses another lover, outside their friendship, outside Robert’s control. Casey is one of Jerry’s writers, older than him, less fit, but nonetheless a protégé. It’s an insult to male pride. It is significant that Emma continues the affair for four years after Robert discovers it, until she is bored with it. He must know this would happen. He becomes a complaisant husband, enjoying the power of knowing his wife and best friend are betraying him. He can call the shots, making them squirm under the fire of his ironically pointed remarks which are harsh enough for us to understand why she might want to have affairs, even without the provocation of his own repeated infidelity. They are all habitual betrayers. Jerry is angry and hurt when Robert reveals that he’s known all about it for years: ‘you bastard’. Both men are shocked when Emma asks if she can watch them playing squash. For them the game is a masculine ritual to enjoy without feminine interference; she’s turned on by the idea of watching them fight over her, like in a medieval combat. Robert is more interested in the way the affair has put Jerry’s squash off than in his wife’s adultery.

The production publicity focuses on a photograph of the lovers’ passionate embrace. This promises a sexual heat that is not delivered in performance. The actors are out of their range and depth, and some scenes bare little trace of directorial guidance. The theatre is empty of emotion. The text is clear, but not the motives behind it. The men, Aden Gillett as Jerry and Hugo Speer as Robert, let wonderfully wry comic lines go for nothing. There is no suspense, no reality behind the formality of Pinter’s language. All three actors waste moments that should have emotional impact. Janie Dee enchanted audiences and critics with her Gilda in Design Fir Living, and in the opening scene of Betrayal her warm, attractive voice fills the theatre, and her freshness comes bubbling over the lines, played with deadly lack of spontaneity by her partner on stage. She alone rings the changes of thought but Emma’s isolated crises of emotional pain seem beyond her. The occasions when she weeps are embarrassingly unconvincing.

We cannot believe in any of these people, whether in their love or professional lives. Early on, we decide they are all boring and selfish and not worth caring about. It’s impossible to believe that Jerry and Robert work in publishing or have read Yeats and Ford together in their idealistic youth. The set (by John Gunter) is in perfect harmony with this implausibility of presentation. It’s impossible to believe that Emma’s tablecloth was bought in Venice (or is that meant to be one of her lies?) The food doesn’t look as if it’s been made in a publisher’s favourite restaurant, where James Supervia’s waiter serves in one of Pinter’s vaudevillian incursions. The pyramid of accumulated rubbish from their NW6 homes and picture frames in receding perspective too messily force home the idea that this is all about memory and time. The overall dinginess of the production is an insult to credulity: these are people with the moral and economic freedom to have sex in the afternoons for seven years.

C J Sheridan © October 2003

Originally published on R&V 12-10-03

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