By: Harold Pinter
Directed by: Greg Homan
Featuring: Antony Coleman, Carly Graeme, Tom Fairfoot, José Domingos
Produced by: Daphne Kuhn
17 June 2017, 18:00
Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Johannesburg
In writing this post, I feel a little apprehensive. I know the play, Betrayal, very well – as in Betrayal-is-one-of-the-plays-my-doctorate-was-on well – and it always seems a bit unfair to then judge a performance of such a play, since no production can compete with the imaginary one in my imagination.
The play is about a love triangle between Robert (Antony Coleman), Emma (Carly Graeme), and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot). Robert and Emma are married while Robert and Jerry are best friends. The play is presented to the audience mostly in reverse chronological order. The audience’s first encounter with Jerry and Emma is two years after their affair has ended. Each subsequent scene shows more betrayals between the three characters, each entangled with the first, major betrayal, which is that of adultery. The audience, for example, learns that, not only has Emma betrayed her husband with Jerry, but she has also betrayed her lover by not telling him that her husband, his best friend, knows about the affair.
Greg Homan’s production is, despite what will follow in this post, an enjoyable theatre experience. The actors are convincing as three Londoners in the 1970s. The costumes and décor are functional and effective. However, I felt that the production did not put enough emphasis on the language of the play. According to Martin Esslin (1992:277), Pinter’s most valuable contribution to the stage is the way in which he exposes how stage dialogue tends to overestimate the way in which people actually use language. Pinter (2008) himself argued that language does not fail us, but that we use it to avoid, conceal, and evade:
I think we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.
Therefore the precise words that Pinter’s characters utter are extremely important. Changing a character’s lines – even ever so slightly – could alter a Pinter play quite significantly. I was therefore quite shocked that Jerry’s utterance in Scene One, when he tells Emma that he never had any suspicions that Robert were cheating on her (despite her assertion to the contrary) was changed. In the printed text, Jerry says:
For example, when you’re with a fellow in a pub, or a restaurant, for example, from time to time he pops out for a piss, you see, who doesn’t, but what I mean is, if he’s making a crafty telephone call, you can sort of sense it, you see, you can sense the pip pip pips. Well, I never did that with Robert. He never made any pip pip telephone calls in any pub I was ever with him in. The funny thing is that it was me who made the pip pip calls – to you, when I left him boozing at the bar. (26)
In Homan’s production, the “pip pip pips” were cut. While this might not seem to be an important omission at first glance, it forms an important onomatopoeic link with Robert’s “whoomp,” later in Scene Four, when he explains how he travelled to Torcello in a speed boat. Both these utterances show how language is more than words. How people create their own meanings as they go along. How words do not live in dictionaries, but in the mind, in Virginia Woolf’s (1974:205) words.
In addition, Pinter’s plays demands from the actor an approach which differs greatly from the ubiquitous Method Acting. According to Hanna Scolnicov (2012:8), Pinter plays require “a hyperrealistic fidelity to external appearances together with an opaqueness that deliberately refuses to suggest motives or inner workings of the mind.” Pinter’s characters often try to hide their emotions, with only the tiniest gestures hinting that there may be more lurking beneath the surface than what their words suggest. Peter Hall (2005:137-8) refers to this as “veiling” and suggests that actors playing Pinter’s characters portray various, conflicting emotions, each masking the other.
In Homan’s production, I felt that the characters were doing the opposite of this: they over-emoted when their emotional portrayal should have been more nuanced and subtle, and, on the other hand, they underplayed key moments in the respective characters’ emotional arcs. For example, when Jerry and Emma dissolve their affair in Scene Three, Graeme’s Emma was too visibly upset. At the end of the scene, when she struggles to remove the apartment’s key from her keyring, this action seems superfluous. If she had underplayed the scene, the struggle with the keyring would have betrayed her emotions, rather than merely emphasizing an already loaded situation.
On the other hand, in Scene Five, when Robert confronts Emma about her affair with Jerry, she seems too calm. She does not appear to be distressed or cornered by Robert’s insistent questions. It is therefore not clear why she confesses to the affair. When Robert asks her why she is shaking, she does not seem to be shaking at all and this question subsequently does not make sense. Instead of menacing, Robert now comes across as babbling.
Similarly, in Scene Nine, when Jerry first seduces Emma, Fairfoot’s delivery was not urgent enough. Instead of drunkenly pretentious, Jerry was nonchalantly rambling away. A very important plot point in this scene is that Emma rejects Jerry’s advances until Robert enters. When he seems nonplussed by what is obviously a seduction of his wife, Emma responds to Jerry after Robert exits. However, at the point when Emma is still rejecting Jerry’s advances, she seems (appropriately) uncomfortable and – yet – very close to the door. It is not clear why she does not simply leave while Jerry is (seemingly) incoherently rambling on.
These subtle changes in emphasis therefore make the characters’ motivations unclear at times. Despite a clever, functional set and overall smooth delivery, I unfortunately feel that this performance did not reach its full potential.
Esslin, Martin. 1992. Pinter: The playwright. London: Methuen Drama.
Hall, Peter. 2005. “Peter Hall: Peter Hall interviewed by Catharine Itzin and Simon Trussler in Theatre Quarterly, No. 16, 1974.” In: Smith, I., ed. Pinter in the theatre. London: Nick Hern. pp. 131-157.
Pinter, Harold. 2008. “The echoing silence.” The Guardian, 31 December. Online: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2008/dec/31/harold-pinter-early-essay-writing/print (Accessed: 4 December 2013.)
Pinter, Harold. 1978. Betrayal. London: Faber.
Scolnicov, Hanna. 2012. The experimental plays of Harold Pinter. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Woolf, Virginia. 1974. The death of the moth and other essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego.