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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Betrayal
DuchessTheatre, Autumn-Winter 2003

Harold Pinter's 1978 study in adultery is given a new production by Peter Hall, who directed the original, and it is fascinating to see the way he and the play have changed - sometimes, but not always for the better.

The play, famously based on an actual affair of Pinter's, is an exploration of the unexpected number of sides there are to a triangle. When a man begins an affair with his best friend's wife, just who is betraying who? Clearly a husband is being cuckolded, but is the wife actually coming between the two men? Factor in a few lies, like the fact that the husband knows but doesn't let on that he knows, and the number of betrayals multiplies, and the play becomes a chilling series of games of mental and emotional one-upsmanship.

(The fact that the play is told in a more-or-less backward time scale, starting with an after-the-fact meeting and ending with the moment the affair began, has never seemed essential to me, adding only a couple of thin layers of additional irony to the ample supply already there.)

Many of Pinter's earlier plays were originally staged in very cool, stylized modes (frequently by Peter Hall), and more recent revivals of, say, The Caretaker and The Homecoming have discovered unexpected richness of emotion and psychological insight by playing them more realistically. And Peter Hall does that with this revival, with mixed results.

The primary beneficiary of the new interpretation is Janie Dee's Emma, who shows us more of the wife's emotional journey than we've seen before, particularly the way she unconsciously tries to turn the sexual affair into a sort of alternative marriage with its own domesticity that her actual marriage evidently lacks.

On the other hand, the sense of multiple cross-betrayals is somewhat reduced if we don't see Hugo Speer as the husband retaining a sense of dignity and power by refusing to respond in any conventional ways. In a key scene in Venice, what should be a mental torture of his wife (Does he know?) is replaced by more ordinary and thus less resonant physical intimidation; and another scene in which he should be in control is played as a descent into drunken weakness which may be psychologically more realistic but wanders away from the play's point..

And somehow the adventure of Aden Gillett's friend/lover gets lost in all this, as he is reduced to a kind of lumpen befuddlement throughout, with neither his using of the other two nor his being used by them brought to life.

I've never thought Betrayal in the absolute top rank of Pinter's work, but it is one case in which his trademark cool observation and elliptical exposition seem central to what the play is about. I fear that Peter Hall, by trying to illuminate more around the edges of the play, has lost a little too much of what is at its core.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Betrayal - Duchess 2003