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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Betrayal
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Summer 2007

This revival of Harold Pinter's 1978 drama has all the intensity, emotion and realism we have come to expect from Donmar productions, and I doubt whether the play has been done better since (or possibly including) the original National Theatre version.

Notoriously based on an episode in Pinter's own life, it tells of Jerry, who carries on a long love affair with Emma, wife of his best friend Robert. As the play progresses, we realise that the title may not merely apply to the adultery.

Did Emma tell Robert about the affair long before she told Jerry she did? Did Robert violate their friendship by letting Jerry think he didn't know? Were their shifting friendships with an unseen but frequently mentioned fourth character a series of small infidelities? And what of Robert's own adulteries, which no one seems to have known about?

In short, the play asks, is violation and dishonesty inherent in any relationship, with adultery merely the flashiest and not necessarily the most hurting of them?

To add to the ironies, Pinter tells the story backwards, beginning after the affair is over and then retracing its steps back to the first declaration of desire. It's a device that has never particularly worked for me, the small pathos generated by seeing the happy lovers only after we know what is going to become of them hardly worth the effort. (It doesn't help that Pinter has to violate his own structure a couple of times, moving chronologically forward a small step before doubling back again.)

Still the play's basic discoveries - that the innocent happiness of the lovers is bound to end, and that their affair is just one of several betrayals going on within the triangle - are powerful, and are presented in some almost unbearably intense scenes of barely repressed emotion.

A generalisation: the history of Pinter productions and revivals has been of an initial cold stylisation gradually being replaced by more naturalistic characterisations and performances. And so it is with this Betrayal.

Those who remember earlier productions in which the three characters seemed almost Noel Coward-ish in their brittle, civilised calm, with only the slightest hint of tightly-bound passions beneath, may be surprised by the warm and human portrayals director Roger Michell has led his cast to.

Toby Stephens defines Jerry as a Nice Guy - simple, happy, fairly blind to what's going on around him, with the only noteworthy thing in his life being the period of passionate desire for Emma, a phase that (as far as he's concerned) ended when it ended, leaving no particular scars or regrets.

The shock Stephens exposes early in the play as Jerry gets a glimpse of everything else that had been going on all along exposes his complacent blindness and prepares us to spot hints of it later (i.e., earlier) on, as when it becomes painfully clear to us that Emma was looking for more of a commitment from him than he was interested in.

Dervla Kirwan wisely resists any impulse to turn Emma into an enigmatic 'Pinter woman' and makes her totally transparent. Perhaps originally bowled over by the force of Jerry's desire, she never was looking for an affair, but for a more fulfilling marriage than the one she had (and never broke with).

More than any other actress Kirwan lets us notice that Emma spends her energy decorating and cooking meals in the rented flat that is for Jerry just a convenient place for an afternoon tryst.

But it is Samuel West who takes the biggest gamble. Previous Roberts have generally played him as super-cool, using his unflappability alternately as a defence against being wounded and as a sadistic weapon of revenge. West shows us the man's pain and anger, not just peeping out from the mask of self-control, but barely being kept in check.

In a lunch at which Jerry does not know that he knows, at the moment he pries a confession out of Emma, and indeed in the innocent encounter before the affair begins, West plays a man who might very well become violent with rage. But he also shows us the pain of the man, and the great cost not giving way to violence takes on him.

In short, those who know the play will find some enriching surprises and discoveries. And everyone is likely to shaken by this revival's depiction of the dangers of dishonesty apparently lying in any human interaction.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Betrayal - Donmar 2007