Chris Eldon Lee reviews London Classic Theatre’s production of “Betrayal” which is at the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 16 November and Wolverhampton’s Arena Theatre on November 26th and 27th.
‘Betrayal’ is the Harold Pinter play I appreciate most. By the simple device of running a relationship backwards through time, Pinter illuminates all the landmarks in a way that is much more stark and striking than when viewed in the ordinary order.
And when that relationship is a supposedly secret seven-year affair between a man and his best friend’s wife, the tell tale moments that might be missed by those actually having the affair become glaringly obvious. There’s the handing back of the illicit keys, the discovery of the incriminating letter, the worrying about who knows what about whom and when people actually learned the truth.
Starting at the end then, the play opens the day after the spilling of the beans. Jerry’s affair with Emma is long over but husband Robert has apparently just found out about it. But then he’s been having affairs for ages anyway. Everyone has betrayed everyone else. Hence the title.
The play was inspired by Pinter’s seven-year clandestine extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell and is set in his own literary London. So he knows what he’s talking about. And his fractured dialogue brilliantly pinpoints the way wrong relationships collapse through time. It’s sparse and terse, sharp and searing; finely distilled into economical little packages of adroit meaning. And it needs careful handling.
I’ve said this before about London Classic Theatre Company, but it’s the male actors who let the show down. Rebecca Pownall is elegantly excellent as the torn lover. Pinter gives the woman’s role the widest range of emotion and she makes full use of it; tight lipped and surly as things go sour, wide eyed and girly when the going’s good. But the men don’t match her.
Pete Collis has some fine moments. Robert’s reaction to the discovery of the affair is beautifully measured and his ensuing lunch with his deceitful Best Man has real tension about it. But I’m afraid Steven Clarke as Jerry does neither of his colleagues any favours as he barks out his lines without wisdom or weighting.
His final seduction scene with Emma (at the start of the affair) seemed strangely devoid of motive or emotion. True, Pinter tended to hide this kind of stuff away in his famous pauses, but surely the actors’ job is to reveal it to us?
It’s almost as if having started the play with a bleak and bitter ending, the production struggles to rise above it.
It is nevertheless a riveting evening, packed with uncomfortable truths, double meanings and dramatic irony. Your attention is fully demanded, if only to fill in the gaps.
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Photo : Steven Clarke and Rebecca Pownall. Picture by Sheila Burnett