Guy Edmonds, Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes triangulate power and desire in this staging of Pinter's Olivier Award-winning 1978 play
Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal is famous for its generous use of the ‘Pinter pause,’ a silence onstage that conveys volumes – a sort of guarded way to reveal a character’s feelings without speaking them explicitly. There’s a kind of realism to this pause. In this play, inspired by Pinter’s own fraught experiences with long affairs, the pauses help illustrate the various hallmarks of a spectacularly broken down love triangle: dishonesty, avoidance of culpability, an encroaching lack of intimacy.
Emma (Ursula Mills) is married to Robert (Guy Edmonds). For years she’s been having an affair with Robert’s best friend Jerry (Matthew Zeremes). Unfolding in reverse chronological order, the play opens with an encounter between the erstwhile lovers as Emma’s marriage is coming to an end; it then moves back through time, past bitterness, swift lies, professional tension, and painful revelations – to the affair’s giddy beginning. It’s an intimate, suggestive play with an undercurrent of despair born from bitterness. Everyone hurts everyone. It’s a dark take on the underside of giving in to passion.
Unfortunately, Mark Kilmurry’s production is curiously flat and frustratingly bleak. There’s little discernible chemistry between the cast – it’s impossible to believe that this trio ever loved each other, platonically or otherwise. Their stilted post-affair relationships never really change, even as we go backwards towards happier times.
There’s a strange stiffness to the way the cast hold their bodies, the way the music cues abruptly interrupt themselves, and the way the scenes begin and end; Kilmurry is so busy ensuring the play moves at a cracking pace that the actors never really do more than recite the lines from their designated mark.
Pinter wrote about people who are motivated by fear; who hurt each other because it’s all they can do to protect themselves; who are complex and unhappy and unsettled in their own skin. There’s a necessary self-preservation in that kind of behaviour that can result in stiffness, of course, but in this production that complexity and existential unsettlement never really seems to apply; any glances into the distance seem motivated more by the script mandating a pause than by any inner life. When Jerry and Emma, meeting in the flat they’re using to conduct their affair to take in the news of Emma’s pregnancy (Robert is the father), the exchange is perfunctory; it’s one of the play’s core betrayals, but the moment barely registers onstage.
More troubling is the framing of Emma’s role in the drama. Ostensibly the centre of the love triangle, here she appears as little more than a prop for the two men who claim to love her: she is frequently standing to the side, passively pained, and her dialogue isn’t given much weight – in the shape of Kimurry’s scenes, it is the reaction to her words that seem to matter most, with lighting and movement granting the men more clarity and more time. The text itself doesn’t do much better by Emma, but in this production she seems to be constantly lectured, condescended to, and dismissed. Mills is given little physical action (or reaction) and this leaves us with a production that seems to only want to talk about how difficult it is for men when ‘their’ woman is dishonest.
Betrayal is restrained on the surface, but this production doesn’t bother to look underneath for the feelings fuelling that silence. Restraint is only interesting when the menace or venom it inspires really lands, or when it comes from something deeper – the futility of needing more from others that we ourselves can give others, perhaps. This production doesn’t bother to explore any of that, and without it, feels like a dated take on relationship politics. The result is a politely mean discussion between three people about the absence of feeling, travelling backwards in time.