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