Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal (Donmar Warehouse), follows the triangular relationship of two old friends, Jerry and Robert, and Emma, the woman to whom Robert is married and Jerry has an affair with (Jerry also being married). The three hander (excepting the brief appearance of an Italian waiter), is a powerful exploration of the nature of love and friendship, but also the contained, even repressed, English character. Set in episodes spanning a decade, the play tells the story of Jerry and Emma’s affair, but from two years after their break-up, tracking backwards to the inception of their affair in 1968. Pinter has revealed that the play is directly based on his own relationship with Joan Bakewell, and the reverse chronology is actually a very effective means of telling the story, allowing us to experience first the uncomfortable chit chat of ex-lovers, leading us to wonder how it was that these people ever were, or believed that they were, really in love with each other. The play portrays crucial, though never melodramatic, moments in the relationships of the three protagonists, lying to and deceiving one another, and often themselves. Seeing this piece for the second time (the first being Sir Peter Hall’s production of 2003), it strikes me as very much of its time, not only in the practicalities of deception (mobile phones and the internet being absent), but in the contained emotions of the characters; the type of stiffly English, and slightly strained relationships they have. For good or ill, England is a much more emotional place than in 1978, and publicly emotional at that. The awkward interaction between two successful, relatively young, upper middle class long-time best-friends, over lunch, seems quite antiquated to my ear now (‘what’s the matter Robert?’ as an immediate question springs to mind). But it is brilliant dialogue nonetheless, not just because it is imbued with meaning and understated feeling, but because we might even regret the (almost) passing of the reserved character shown onstage. Seeing this, or any of his plays, you have to marvel at how Pinter is so brilliantly able to convey in one perfect sentence what a lesser playwright would take a paragraph to express. Spare, clipped, meaningful (even in its seeming meaninglessness) speech populates this play. The closest we come to an outburst is when Robert first suspects Emma’s infidelity, whilst the couple are on holiday. In an extraordinarily atmospheric scene, set in their Venice hotel bedroom, Robert (brilliantly portrayed by Samuel West) blasts his wife with a controlled outburst of wounded rage; having discovered a letter to his wife from his best friend, he talks indignantly about the poor quality of the Italian postal workers, who were quite prepared to give him a letter not actually addressed to him, simply on the grounds the intended recipient is a female and has the same surname. When Emma confirms the affair with Jerry, he is clearly angry, but never out of control, keeping a firm lid on powerful emotions, not even engaging or discussing the matter much further. This scene shows Pinter’s understanding of people, their motivations, and his capturing of the times, to full affect.
Samuel West gives a very strong performance as Robert, often unhappy, but getting on with life, even conducting his own affair after discovering his wife’s, and firmly keeping Jerry as his friend as if nothing had every happens, even whilst the affair continued. Dervla Kirwan plays his wife Emma, but her acting style is a little too flat for my liking. Her lover Jerry is played by Toby Stephens, who cuts quite a dash, but never convinced me that he understands events fully, which is perhaps quite appropriate for the character. The production is directed by Roger Mitchell (who also directed Pinter’s Old Times at The Donmar in 2004), with a very light touch, allowing the words to speak for themselves. In William Dudley’s design, we get massive swishing net curtains being dragged across the stage between scenes. I can’t really see what they add to the play, apart from a couple of minutes to the 90 minute running time, the minimal staging being perfectly good without distractions.
Despite my slight reservations on some aspects of the performances, they play is a complex and fascinating portrayal of deception, betrayal, and the society in which these characters live. The play, as with most of Pinter’s work, can be very funny, initially being panned by now repentant critics as not funny enough. Betrayal is much more straightforward than most of Pinter’s other plays, probably making this his most mainstream, accessible work, but it’s still one of his best.