Theatre Review – Soulpepper/Betrayal by Harold Pinter

Photo by Dahlia Katz

When the Swedish Academy awarded Harold Pinter the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, they cited that the playwright “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”. In short, whether it be one of Pinter’s comedies of menace, memory plays, or political action stage works, the subtext is as crucial as what is actually being said.

Betrayal (1978), which is classed as a memory play, is a case in point, as the surface dialogue hides questionable motivation, selfish egotism, and downright lies. Self-preservation coupled with a desire to provoke seems to be the order of the day. The current Soulpepper production, directed by Andrea Donaldson, makes a good stab at coming to grips with Pinter’s unique and complex spoken/unspoken language, where repeated phrases take on greater weight with each recurrence.

The three main characters have woven a byzantine web of betrayal between them. Emma (Virgilia Griffith) is married to Robert (Jordan Pettle) who is best friends with Jerry (Ryan Hollyman). In fact, Jerry was the best man at their wedding. Emma, however, had a seven-year affair with Jerry, who betrayed his wife Judith by cheating on her. Emma betrays Jerry by telling Robert about the affair, while Robert reveals that he has been cheating on Emma for years. Emma is currently having an affair with a novelist called Casey.

These are all accomplished people. Emma runs an art gallery, Robert publishes books, while Jerry is a literary agent. In fact, Casey is one of Jerry’s clients, and Robert is Casey’s publisher. Yet, here they are caught up in this maze.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

What makes Betrayal particularly intriguing is its structure. We first see Emma and Jerry meeting for a drink two years after the affair has ended, and where she reveals that her marriage to Robert is over. Pinter then takes us backward in time. We see the affair ending, and Emma and Jerry giving up their secret flat-cum-love nest. The last scene of the play shows how the Emma/Jerry affair first started when Jerry made an impassioned declaration of love to Emma at a party. In between are scenes in the lovers’ secret flat in happier times, and Robert and Emma on a Venice vacation. Each episode reveals fresh betrayals and twisted truths. Is time a healer, or a destroyer?

I’ve become accustomed to veteran actors performing Pinter, and they seem to give his succinct, pointed Pinteresque dialogue its gravitas, not to mention Pinter’s famous pregnant pauses. This Soulpepper cast, although they are age appropriate, seem young for the roles, as silly as that sounds. On the other hand, there is a freshness to their portrayals as we break out of what we think Pinter should look and sound like. There is a fourth character in the play. Actor Paolo Santalucia is a menacing and/or officious waiter who oversees Jerry and Robert’s lunch, another of Pinter’s spanner in the works.

There does, however, seem to be three different acting styles going on. Pettle is in Pinter’s “menace” realm, as the sardonic edge he gives his lines seem loaded with meaning, with provocateur written all over him. Hollyman is the most open and ingenuous. He is confounded by the fact that Robert remained his friend, even continuing to meet for their monthly lunches while knowing about Jerry’s affair with Emma. Yet, he is a complete hypocrite, having seduced another man’s wife while cheating on his own. Griffith is cool, almost detached, throwing her little bombshells into play without caring where they land. There is a streak of cruelty in her. While director Donaldson’s production may not be classical Pinter as we know it, she and her actors have created absorbing characters and relationships nonetheless, despite some unevenness in the English accents.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Ken MacKenzie’s set and costumes anchor the play in the 1970s, with the walls covered with dark-slatted wood like old-fashioned recreation rooms. The stage is carved into areas with the cast floating between set pieces as needed – a table and chairs, a bed, a desk. Because we are travelling through memories, Donaldson has created an almost dreamlike flow of movement as scenes change, with Rebecca Picherack’s pin spot lighting helping to define the space. Composer Richard Feren’s original music is rich in almost symphonic texture, sounding like cinematic melodrama, which certainly fits the circumstances. In terms of costumes, MacKenzie has given Griffith a series of wigs to help denote time shifts.

Perhaps Hollyman overplays, and Griffith underplays, and the pacing is a trifle slow, but this production does give Betrayal its substantive due. It is not just a glancing blow. There is depth here.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Soulpepper Theatre, Betrayal by Harold Pinter, directed by Andrea Donaldson, Young Centre for the Arts, Aug. 28 to Sept. 22, 2019.

ARCHIVES – PLAYS THAT OPENED IN JANUARY.2014

(5 Star Rating System)

LondonRoadCanadian Stage. LONDON ROAD (4 ½ stars). Run don’t walk to see one of the most unusual shows in town that is soon to close. The serial killer of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England, had a flat on London Road. Verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe interviewed residents of the street to capture what they went through during the investigation, arrest and trial. These conversations were then set to music by composer Adam Cork. The resulting sung monologues/dialogues are astonishing in their reality. The cast is unbelievable (all kinds of Stratford/Shaw types), gilded by director Jackie Maxwell and her Shaw Festival music director Reza Jacobs. The costumes and the set are terrific. I’m deducting marks for some impenetrable accents. Nonetheless, once again, CanStage scores big with a North American premiere. (Written by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, directed by Jackie Maxwell, Closes Feb. 9, Bluma Appel Theatre, www.canadianstage.com.)

Tarragon Theatre. FLESH AND OTHER FRAGMENTS OF LOVE (3 stars). Evelyne de la Chenelière is one of Quebec’s foremost playwrights, but she falters on this latest offering. The play is inspired by a novel by French writer Marie Cardinal, and dabbles in magic realism. A troubled French couple (Blair Williams and Maria del Mar) is on vacation in a remote part of Ireland, when the husband finds a dead body washed ashore on the beach. The corpse is Mary (Nicole Underhay), a medical student and single mother. Pierre and Simone begin to make up a back story for Mary influenced by their own negative experiences, while Mary herself speaks about her own life and that of Pierre and Simone. Karyn McCallum’s set and costumes are arresting, but the text itself runs out of steam. Richard Rose’s direction seems a tad on the slow side. (Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014, www.tarragontheatre.com.)

Soulpepper. IDIOT’S DELIGHT (2 ½ stars). This is another one of Soulpepper’s irritating productions – good intentions that fizzle out. The very successful play, written in 1936, by Robert Sherwood, actually anticipated World War 2, and which side various countries would end up on. Sherwood also adapted his play for the MGM all-star movie featuring Clark Gable and Norma Schearer, directed by Clarence Brown. Director Albert Schultz’s version doesn’t come even close. The Soulpepper production is beset by uneven acting and insipid direction. More to the point, Raquel Duffy, in the key role of Irene cannot be heard. Doesn’t anyone at Soulpepper actually do a voice check in the theatre? Some like Dan Chameroy, and particularly Evan Buliung, rise above the fray, but there is no sense of an ensemble. The play is one where a group of people end up being marooned together (in this case, an alpine resort on the northern Italian border), and collisions of ideas happen. The recipe is here for intense interaction, but this whole production is paint by numbers. And then there is Lorenzo Savoini’s set that looks like a giant tiled washroom. Soulpepper gets a plus mark for putting this rarity on the stage, but not for the production. (Written by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Albert Schultz, Jan. 30 to Mar. 1, 2014, www.soulpepper.ca.)

Tarragon/Theatre Smash. THE UGLY ONE (4 stars). This revival from 2011 retains the original cast and creative team, all to good advantage. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg has written a fable that deals with important issues like image, identity and perception. The plot begins with an inventor who works for a large corporation. His boss will not let him present his discovery at a convention because he’s too ugly. And so begins von Mayenburg’s twists and turns which also take on the whole obsession with plastic surgery. The acting is superb, while Ashlie Corcoran directs with both passion and humour. The play is short, sweet, and packs a wallop. (Written by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Ashlie Corcoran, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014, www.tarragontheatre.com.

Nightwood Theatre. FREE OUTGOING (3 ½ stars). The over the top melodrama of Bollywood movies carries over into this play whose premise is that a teenage girl’s sexual encounter ends up on youtube. Indian writer Anupama Chandrasekher has set the play in the conservative city of Chennai (where she is based), and the action is relentless as the fallout spirals out of control. From the neighbours who want the family kicked out of the apartment building, to the hungry media and their feeding frenzy, the consequences are extreme for everyone involved. Anusree Roy as the mother gives another of her sterling performances. (Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, directed by Kelly Thornton, Factory Theatre, Jan. 28 to Feb. 16, 2014, www.nightwoodtheatre.net.)

Paula’s Picks and Pans – Dec 11th 2013

THEATRE – NOW PLAYING (5 STAR RATING SYSTEM)

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Theatre Review – Soulpepper/David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow

American playwright David Mamet is all about language and rhythm. Characters like to hear themselves talk. They go off on riffs. Just a word from someone else can trigger the verbal diarrhoea. Other people can barely get a word in edge-wise. When something akin to dialogue happens, the words are fragments of thoughts which makes for the staccato rhythm of the Mametian cadence. Pacing is everything.

The good news about Soulpepper’s production of Speed-The-Plow is that director David Storch puts Mamet’s style in your face. It is artifice writ large. The audience is acutely aware that the characters live in an expressionism Mametian existence where reality has been placed on hold. Their fragmented sentences rage supreme. The emphasis on Mamet’s style may not be to all tastes, it being mostly loud and abrasive, but Storch has certainly paid homage to the playwright.

The title is taken from a 14th century olde English saying “God speed the plough”, which means “May you have prosperity”, which in itself is ironic as the 1988 play takes place in Los Angeles, and is about the movie business. Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen) has just been made head of production for a major movie studio. In Dana Osborne’s set, his new office is still under renovation. Bobby’s associate Charlie Fox (Jordan Pettle) brings him news that Douglas Brown, a huge star, likes the prison script that Charlie gave him, and will make the picture with their studio (and not the one across the street). Bobby immediately arranges a meeting with Richard Ross, the head of the studio.

Enter Karen, Bobby’s secretary temp. Charlie bets Bobby $100 that Bobby can’t bed her. In taking up the challenge, Bobby gives Karen a “courtesy read” – an important book that could never become a popular movie. It’s a weighty tome about radiation and the apocalypse. She’s to bring her notes about the book to his home that evening (whose large   picture window has the de rigueur, spectacular night time view of the Los Angeles cityscape). And so things are in place for the great crisis to happen that will affect the hopes and ambitions of all three people. The rest of the play is a veritable dance of death.

Cohen and Pettle are electric, shooting out their high voltage personas at incendiary speed. They are both mean, lean and hungry. The play, after all, is a satire about the movie business, and Mamet’s caustic touch, according to director Storch and his cast, has to be obvious. Sarah Wilson as Karen has the more difficult role. She is initially passive, but comes alive in the second act when she justifies the movie potential of the radiation book. Wilson pulls off this difficult feat with aplomb – an enthusiastic, almost naïve overtone, with a strong sexual subtext.

The play runs all three acts together, but the 100 minutes fly by on the wings of Mamet’s corrosive language and the cast’s acute delivery.

Speed-The-Plow by David Mamet, (starring Ari Cohen, Jordan Pettle and Sarah Wilson, directed by David Storch), Soulpepper, Young Centre, Jul. 5 to Sept. 22, 2012

 

 

 

 

Theatre Review – David Storey’s Home

David Storey is problematic. There are many scholars who regard him as a great playwright, one who really understands the tenor of his times. And then there are others who find him limited. The one truism is that Storey is not easy.

Home, which he wrote in 1970, is a metaphor for post-war England. His country had won the war, but lost the peace. The sun had set on the empire and generations were being born who would never have jobs. The Draconian era of Maggie Thatcher, with the benefit of hindsight, is looming in the future.

While it takes awhile to reveal itself, we understand that we’re in a mental institution of some sort. We first meet two middle class men (Oliver Dennis and Michael Hanrahan). They speak in clipped sentences with a stiff upper lip in clear evidence, about school, the army and work. This scene is followed by two lower class women (Brenda Robins and Maria Vacratsis) who deal with more vulgar topics. The four ultimately have an encounter. There is also Alfred (Andre Sills), a sporty, muscle-bound type who comes and goes.

In retrospect, everything they talk about, individually or collectively, can refer to the broader picture of post-war England. Storey’s real troubling message is that sometimes it’s better to be inside, than out.

Director Albert Schultz has kept things simple to match the play’s language. He lets Storey speak for himself. Ditto Ken MacKenzie’s garden set design equipped with moving clouds. MacKenzie’s excellent costumes also speak to class differences. The actors really understand the importance of ensemble. They are all seasoned pros who serve the play.

My one problem is the accents that obscure words. Those with a natural gruffness in their voice, such as Robins and Hanrahan, particularly Robins, at times sound like they are speaking mush.

Storey is intriguing, difficult and puzzling. If you like a standard well-made play, Storey is not for you. The audience has to work.

Home by David Storey, (starring Oliver Dennis, Michael Hanrahan, Brenda Robins, Maria Vacratsis and Andre Sills, directed by Albert Schultz), Soulpepper, Young Centre, May 8 to Jun. 10, 2012