Despite its reverse chronology Betrayal is arguably Harold Pinter’s most accessible play. Inspired by Pinter’s seven year affair with Joan Bakewell, his trademark silences and economical dialogue are much in evidence, but it’s also a beautifully naturalistic and emotionally complex piece.
We begin at the end as Jerry and Emma meet in a pub in 1977 for the first time since the end of their affair. Emma has just told her husband (and Robert’s former best friend) of their relationship, much to Jerry’s horror. From this point on Pinter tracks backwards through nine years of the trio’s life together, with the final scene taking place in Emma’ bedroom in 1968 at the point where the relationship first began.
This reversal serves a number of purposes. As the audience already know how this particular relationship will end, and where these people will end up in relation to one another, it makes the scenes of the couple in the first flush of love all the more poignant and painful. Each of the characters has, in various ways, betrayed each other, as well as themselves: Robert has been as unfaithful as Emma, Jerry has betrayed his best friend, and in career terms, both men have betrayed their own ideals.
Nick Bagnell’s production benefits from an astoundingly good cast. John Simm, who 18 months ago made his Crucible debut in Hamlet, is incredibly compelling as Jerry; at first glimpse he’s beaten down by seven years of deception and, ultimately, rejection. By the time the production ends he’s almost a different man, full of zest and optimism. You can almost feel him becoming younger as time ticks on.
He’s well matched with Ruth Gemmell who captures Emma’s inner torment, whilst also managing the trick of seeming to grow visibly younger as time passes. Colin Tierney (a nice bit of casting this, as he played Horatio to Simm’s Hamlet) is unsettling as Robert, really conveying a sense of the character’s dark side. An initially avuncular presence, he can switch to sinister with alarming ease, most overtly when Robert admits that he often hits Emma (“the old itch, you understand?”) – his delivery is brilliantly unnerving.
Colin Mumford’s design is incredibly striking. He’s created a revolving glass floor, underneath which is scattered pages of books and general debris. This floor rotates between scenes, marking the passage of time, and is also utilised in a brilliantly effective way during the scene where Robert and Jerry have lunch together: having already found out about the affair, the stage rotates slowly as if to reflect Robert’s ever-increasing torment. This is one of the most effective uses of the Crucible stage I’ve seen in recent years.
In Pinter’s world the silences speak volumes, and it’s often heart-wrenching watching the emotions play across Simm, Gemmell and Tierney’s faces as their characters struggle to make sense of the situation they’ve found themselves in. Though there are a number of playful and comic lines, everything is heavy with meaning – the repeated motif of Jerry throwing Emma and Robert’s daughter up in the air to catch her (a display of intimacy and trust that would soon be breached), or Robert’s musing about the trust of the postal worker in Venice who hands him Jerry’s letter to Emma which ends up revealing the affair: “To him, we could almost be strangers.”
It’s a depiction of an affair that’s more corrosive than explosive. It fizzles out gradually as such things often do, with Gemmell being particularly effective in conveying the sense of futility as she slowly realises that there is no realistic future with Jerry. Bagnell’s production ends on more of a high and makes for a memorable and potent closer to the Crucible’s 40th anniversary celebrations.