Monday, October 10, 2011

theatre notes. Betrayal.

Betrayal was the first play I'd ever seen by Harold Pinter. It was 1995 at Intiman Theatre; it's the play I associate most with Frank Corrado, even though I've seen him in many other performances over the past nineteen years. It's the play most associated with Harold Pinter, too, his most widely-performed one, the one considered the most "accessible." (This is said with some disgust by Corrado during the post-play discussion tonight). Placed in the context of the other fourteen or so works I've seen in the three years since the Pinter Fortnightly readings began, it still holds strong. I love it as much as I did when I was fifteen years old, maybe more. It's funnier, this time around, but I don't know if that's the actors, the director, or the intimacy between the stage and the audience, that electric bit of chemistry which makes a great play extraordinary.

Betrayal plays with time, moving backwards. It starts after the end of an affair, and takes you back to the beginning. Robert and Jerry are best friends. Emma is married to Robert, and has a seven-year affair with Jerry, who is married to Judith, who is spoken of but not seen. Their affair is one betrayal; Robert's knowledge of the affair is another betrayal, because he doesn't tell Jerry that he knows until much later in time (but earlier in the play). Emma's pregnancy is, too, a betrayal of Jerry, even if the father of her child happens to be her husband. Other betrayals are hinted at, too, those of Robert and Jerry betraying their younger, idealistic selves as they pursue their careers, one as a publisher, and the other as a literary agent, Jerry's wife Judith perhaps betraying him as he is her. Each moment explored illuminates the previous one, stripping away the shells of disillusionment which forced apart these people who were once young and happy, who once loved each other. In the last scene, Jerry drunkenly declares his love for Emma at a party, interrupted by Robert, who leaves them together. Is that when their affair began? Was it something inevitable, something that would have happened anyway, sooner or later? We'll never know for sure.

Now, more than ever, three years and fourteen plays later, or rather, sixteen years later, I can see more clearly how unique Pinter's voice is. He has this way of creating characters who always know where to hit each other where it will hurt with just a few devastating words, with a kind of dialogue of one-upmanship which pops up here and there in so many of his works. It is both emotionally shattering and shatteringly hilarious, and I am reminded for the hundredth time of Simon Callow's comment that "being English is inherently funny."* It is not fair to Pinter's body of work to call Betrayal "more accessible," but at the same time it is not fair to deride it, either. There is something pure about it; there are undercurrents and mysteries and things left unsaid, but it is, on the whole, a more open work than, say, The Room, or The Birthday Party, or Ashes to Ashes, when you aren't quite sure what the hell just happened. I could see it again, and learn something new.

There's so much more left to explore. I can't bloody wait.

Pinter Fortnightly, at ACT.

*This is from the commentary soundtrack from A Room with a View, 1985.

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