Theatre on the Steps, Bridgnorth, 16/3/13.
This is the first of Pinter’s plays I’ve seen, and it was certainly an interesting – and enjoyable – experience!
The story is essentially a simple one. Robert and Jerry are old friends, and colleagues in the publishing business. Emma is Roberts wife, and has had a long affair with Jerry. So both of them have betrayed Robert. Jerry thinks that Robert doesn’t know, but as events unfold it becomes clear that actually, Robert knew for a long time, and Emma knew that he knew – but didn’t tell Jerry. So you could say that she betrayed him as well. And Robert hasn’t bothered to mention it to Jerry either… around the simple premise there is woven a complex mesh of motivations and consequences.
One of the distinctive things about the play is that it works backwards in time, which can be confusing if you’re not aware of it! The programme helped a bit, since each scene has the relevant year noted on it. Scene One, for example is 1977, while the final scene (Eight) is 1968. However, Scene Two is 1977-Later, and Scenes Five to Seven are all 1973, which make it even trickier! Once these temporal gymnastics are taken into account, however, it becomes clearer.
There’s no ‘action’ in ‘Betrayal’. It’s all dialogue – and props are a table and two chairs. Oh, and several bottles of wine, but not much else! But the dialogue is very clever and effectively done. Without ever being directly told anything, the audience become increasingly aware of the personalities involved, of their actions, their backgrounds, and so on. There is a lot of humour involved as well – particularly in Robert’s pompous and slightly surreal speeches. However, one thing that I was quite impressed with was how much could be communicated without any dialogue at all – any spoken dialogue, at least. This was particularly the case in the opening scene, where Jerry and Emma meet again some time after their affair ended. The stilted conversation, and even more the long awkward silences, said eloquently that these two people had very little in common any more.
If I had any criticism, though it’s that Pinter seemed perhaps a little too fond of using these meaningful silences. It worked brilliantly well in the opening scene, but the same technique was employed in other places as well, and to me it seemed a little overdone.
The real question I had, though, was why did Pinter use this reverse time effect? Why not simply tell the story in straightforward chronological order?
My thought was this: when we see the affair begin – in the last scene – Jerry is drunk and full of passion as he declares to Emma his love and desire for her. But when we see that, we already know how it’s going to end – with Jerry hung-over and distant. There’s poignancy to the beginning of the affair, because we already know how it will end, and that the multiple betrayals will poison even the memories of what will happen.
It’s clever, it’s thought-provoking, it’s funny, and it’s sad. A very fine piece of story-telling.