Ensemble Theatre, July 21
Harold Pinter wrote Betrayal with almost Shakespearian detachment. Despite all three lead characters betraying at least one of the others, no one’s behaviour is portrayed as villainous and no one is even deemed to be at fault. Perhaps this detachment is unsurprising, given that Pinter had famously had a long-term affair of his own before writing the play, but it is crucial in lifting the story from mere salaciousness into a headier exploration of the distortions and fault-lines in human relationships; truths the audience uncovers via Pinter’s ingenious backwards-running narrative chronology.
Despite its veneer of naturalism Betrayal certainly has its challenges for the actors and director (Mark Kilmurry), among which is the fact that the flattest scene, that in which the marriage between Robert (Guy Edmonds) and Emma (Ursula Mills) has come to an end, two years after the affair between Emma and Jerry (Matthew Zeremes) withered, opens proceedings. Possibly compounded by opening-night nerves, the play seemed especially slow to get going, with the stakes low and the characterisations rather awkward.
But by about a third of the way into the straight-through 90 minutes it gathered pace and tension, and the various layers of betrayal – Jerry having an affair with his best friend’s wife and cheating on his own wife; Robert having his own affair with an unseen fourth party; Emma cheating on Robert and then not telling Jerry when she has confessed to this – was absorbing.
Zeremes became especially effective as the heartthrob literary agent whose lust and love for Emma was ultimately never going to test his bond to his own family. Edmonds, meanwhile, found a path for Robert to let his friendship towards Jerry cool but not die altogether in the face of being cuckolded. Nonetheless he and Kilmurry decided to emphasise the bitterness and potential innuendo in some of Robert’s speeches to Jerry in a way that seemed unnecessary. Arguably the more nonchalant Robert is while seething underneath, the more complete his character.
By contrast Mills’ portrayal of Emma had the opposite problem of not quite enough heat on occasion. She also spoke so softly on several occasions that her lines were lost, and in this play precious little is said that is extraneous to building the complex three-way interaction.
Kilmurry opted to eliminate the unrewarding role of the Waiter in Scene Seven, and the production more or less got away with it. In what is a very sedentary play the movement he created never seemed forced, and his staging of the final seduction scene (that begins the affair between Emma and Robert) fizzed with genuine electricity, and was compellingly played by all three actors.
This occurred on a raised podium at the rear of the Ensemble’s little stage, containing a double recliner on which Jerry lay in wait for Emma. It was a clever device on the part of Kilmurry and designer Anna Gardiner to have this empty bed of seduction watching over all the previous scenes.
Until August 20.