Betrayal

Published April 17, 2008

Written in 1978, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal is a portrait of an affair and the affect it has on the relationships between man and wife, two best friends and the lovers themselves. Though set in the 70s, the play’s themes of love, infidelity and friendship seem no less relevant now, as the play returns to London at the Donmar Warehouse, where Roger Michell directs. Caroline Bishop was in the first night audience…

Simplicity, in a word, sums up Michell’s production of Betrayal at the Donmar – at least, on the surface. William Dudley’s set is simple – white curtains are moved round on a train track of curtain rails to create the different scenes, a bed, a couple of chairs and a table being the only decoration on the wooden floorboards of the stage. The clothing worn by the trio of protagonists is unfussy, firmly of the 1970s without being overstated. A double bass provides the only music.

Pinter’s play uses a simple, yet cleverly effective device, to tell the story in reverse, beginning in 1977 and ending in 1968, with the dates projected onto the white curtains. Even the premise is simple – a straightforward affair (inasmuch as an affair can be) between two married people – as is the dialogue; what is left unsaid says as much as what is spoken.

Pinter’s story is an everyday one. Jerry (who is married to the unseen Judith) and married couple Emma and Robert are regular, middle-class, suburban media types, living a regular life with regular wives, husbands and children. The affair between Jerry and Emma is a regular one, with usual ups and downs, only unusual, perhaps, in that it lasted so long. This is a story that could be playing out behind closed doors anywhere, between anyone.

It begins in 1977, as Jerry and Emma meet for a drink, two years after their seven-year affair ended. The intriguing details they mention – a flat, Emma’s five-year-old son, old memories – are gradually revealed in more detail as the play goes back in time: to 1975, when they split up and sold their love nest; to 1973, when Robert found out about his best friend’s affair with his wife during a holiday in Venice; to 1971, when Emma finds herself pregnant; to 1968, when Jerry first seduces Emma at a party.

Toby Stephens is a laid-back, unruly-haired, beer-drinking Jerry, while Samuel West is a pretentious, old fashioned, whiskey-drinking Robert, and the interaction between the two provides much of the play’s funnier moments. The pair claim to be best friends – Jerry was best man at his friend’s wedding to Emma – and yet Jerry has no qualms about pursuing Robert’s wife, while West imbues Robert with a malicious power, once he finds out about the affair.

None of the characters is particularly sympathetic, though Jerry and Emma’s affection for each other in the early days is sweet and genuine. Pinter leaves you to come to your own conclusions about the entwined relationships between the three, and it seems, much is left simmering under the surface. The title, Betrayal, seems almost too grand for what is an ordinary story, but Pinter shows us the interesting in the ordinary. Even if it is played out in hush tones rather than dramatic gestures, betrayal is still betrayal.

CB