Betrayal, by Harold Pinter

Betrayal runs in reverse order – scenes from the end of an affair to its start several years earlier.  I didn’t know very much else about it beforehand, but that bit helped.   In the first scene, Elena Porter’s character Emma and Chris W Cook’s character Jerry are meeting for a drink a couple of years after their affair ended.  They both seemed terse, brittle, understated, and careful with each other.  Was that was due to their characters, the history between them, or just some mythical British reserve? It wasn’t clear.  Within a few more scenes I’d also watched each of them interact with Emma’s husband and Jerry’s best friend Robert (Cody Porter), and I was thinking that none of them seemed very happy, with each other or in general.

But as I learned in a playwriting class, flashbacks and hints raise the stakes.  How did these people get in this unhappy situation?  I wanted to find out, and I was primed to watch for clues.  In the first scene, Emma and Jerry share news of various people who had been in each other’s lives – Robert, Jerry’s wife Judith, their respective children, other associates.  None of these people ever appears on stage, but they are all mentioned as the story rewinds back through the years, and I realized that the conversations in the first scene weren’t so much awkward time-filling as significant information about what had happened.

The various scenes take place in bars and restaurants, in Emma and Robert’s home, in a tourist hotel, and in the flat Jerry and Emma had rented for afternoon rendezvous.  Director/designer Clinton Carew has made some fascinating choices in how to use the small black-box space of the Arts Barns Studio Theatre, with furniture for each setting poised not quite out of sight in multiple legs on either side, arranged asymmetrically.  The pub table where Jerry and Emma meet in the first scene is far upstage, constrained in a narrow space far from the audience.  As the story progresses backwards in time, the scenes are played closer and closer to the audience risers.  This reminded me of this company’s production of Three Sisters several years ago, in which the family’s gradual uprooting from their family home is paralleled by the actors gradually piling up abandoned furniture upstage and moving down until they end up almost in the audience moat.

All this furniture moving takes place with the help of a character moving with precise almost fussy physicality (Jake Tkaczyk, recently seen with Elena Porter in the Shadow Theatre production of Lungs).  He turns out to be a restaurant waiter in one of the later/earlier scenes.

Costume design is by Leona Brausen.  My impression in the first few scenes is that everything is colourless grey and beige, with all the characters in trenchcoats.   But as the years rewind to happier and more vulnerable times, the palette of costuming and lighting shifts warmer as well, towards a warm master-bedroom of affection and Emma’s splendid red party frock consistent with the characters’ feelings.

I’ve seen Chris W Cook playing many characters who are well-meaning stoner bros without a future, earnest and a little stupid, shortsighted and limited in worldview – the drugged-up guy in 3…2…1 bragging about contributing to his customers’ health as a Subway sandwich artist, the young fellow in Sweat getting out of jail with the swastika neck tattoo, the drinking buddy in Nighthawk Rules trying to drag his old friend away from his grownup boring girlfriend, the wannabe-artist in The Aliens.  But in some ways his turtleneck-sporting character in Betrayal is the opposite of those – a well-spoken successful literary agent and, as one of my preview-night companions said afterwards, “a complete cad.”

The playwright Harold Pinter is known for effective use of silences in conversation “the Pinter pause”, and having seen this production I can see why.   In the stillnesses I wondered what Robert wasn’t saying, what Emma wanted to say, what Jerry was being careful about.  I found Cody Porter’s constrained facial expressions particularly compelling.  I kept wanting him to smile – I kept wanting them all to smile – but he always seemed to be in pain.

I’d like to see Betrayal again, especially to watch those beginning scenes knowing where they come from.  But once is sufficient to understand the story, to have some sympathy for the not-entirely-likeable characters, and to be challenged and entertained.  Betrayal runs until the afternoon of Sunday June 2, with tickets through Fringe.

 

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