As with most Pinter plays, I went into Betrayal feeling pretty apprehensive. The playwright’s comedies of menace are intended to disturb and unsettle, and they’ve always been very successful in doing both to me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about spending my first night back in a theatre sitting in my discomfort. In the end though, my problems with the production lay more in a lack of tension than an excess of it.
The play follows the long running affair of Emma and Jerry, and how it affects each of their relationships with her husband Robert. The play travels through its nine year span backwards – starting with Emma and Jerry meeting for lunch to reminisce, and ending with his first declaration of love for her. While I’ve seen plenty of work that uses its non-linear timeline to great effect, here it feels like it removes any sense of tension, or engagement – we know what is coming, and seeing it for ourselves does not reveal much more than what we have been previously told. It’s difficult to tell if that is rooted in the play itself or the production, but either way it makes the play feel sedate in a way I wasn’t expecting. The moment of most tension comes when Jerry talks about how he ‘just felt like giving [Emma] a good bashing’ and I was reminded of all my least favourite experiences with Pinter – where I am disturbed less by what is said onstage, and more by the laughter moving through the audience.
Although the tone of the piece feels a little uncertain, the performances within it are strong. All three of the main cast make their characters feel as if they’re holding back even when they are apparently being open or vulnerable. It is often uncertain how they’re really feel about the affair. We get a sense of each character’s personality – Jerry’s (Edward Bennett) seeming naiveté, Emma’s (Nancy Carroll) enthusiasm and with Robert (Joseph Millson) hitting an effective balance between annoying and menacing – but none of them seem able to say what they really think, or really want. This particularly comes through in the relationship between Jerry and Robert; both characters often care more about their friendship than their respective relationships with Emma, even when talking to her about the affair. When the affair is revealed, both worry most about what the other man thinks of them but the reasons why are always murky – whether it’s competition, trust, or a real sense of affection between them.
Alex Eales’ set design is a particular highlight of the show – a revolve full of furniture always at least partially visible, different locations and times frequently overlapping. A centre stage table which hosted a restaurant dinner becomes a side table in a living room; the living room which, viewed straight on, shows a sitcom-perfect lover’s nest, but when tilted to the side sets the stage for a tense conversation between the trio in Emma and Robert’s home. This overlapping is a nice nod to the ways that the different parts of the character’s lives are never as nicely compartmentalised as they would like – secrets and conversations spill between scenes, and the other parts of their lives are never quite out of sight. Disappointingly this effect begins to disappear later in the play though, as sets become more defined, or are reused for different locations without variation.
The surprisingly reserved tone of most of the production feels at odds with a title which suggests high drama and intrigue. But perhaps that is what the show is telling us – for all the Greek tragedy the word suggests, most betrayal happens in a way that is quiet, and mundane. Despite this, I cannot help but feel that the show is more underwhelming than understated, and it might have benefitted from some of the Pinter menace that I usually dread. I understand the appeal of that visceral discomfort – without it I find it harder to see what Betrayal has to pull us in.
Betrayal runs at Theatre Royal Bath until 31st October. More info here.