Harold Pinter
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

Mason Phillips and Amanda Ryan in Betrayal Credit: Anthony Robling
Mark Hesketh and Amanda Ryan in Betrayal Credit: Anthony Robling

Juliet Forster’s production of a Pinter classic offers a poised, posed rendition of this rich take on adultery among the publishing classes, but ultimately lacks the passion to ignite a true love affair.

Betrayal famously plays games with time and scene sequence in order to tell the story of an extramarital relationship more or less in reverse—from dissolution to first flush.

Like Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along (and Sondheim’s better-known musical update), this is hence a careful exercise in dramatic irony, complicated in this case by the multiple layers of lies told by the lovers.

While other Pinter pieces such as Night or, especially, Old Times employ impossible tricks of memory and chronology in their structure, here the events, though fluidly recalled, are mappable, and this production maps them clearly.

However, this version also relies upon a series of decisions which push it into a strange, stiff area away from the realities of the story at its heart—a sort of Pinterland which the actors struggle to occupy, torn between realism and stern, disengaged artifice.

For instance, while the set is multiform and flexible, there is no real attempt to create the atmospheres of the various settings. We are cued into this from the outset, where the lack of any sense of the pub environment leaves the two actors present, Mark Hesketh and Amanda Ryan, very isolated on a stage which remains resolutely awash with light and devoid of sound or surroundings.

The production as a whole seems somewhat in awe of Pinter’s legend. In this first scene the pair clearly observe the infamous pauses—but fail to connect the thoughts energetically between the gaps or from person to person. This creates a stop-start, at times stilted dialogue, where surely—despite the awkwardness of the situation depicted—Pinter was more alert to the shifting rhythms and responses of real speech.

Hesketh as Jerry feels particularly constrained by the weight of the dialogue and, it seems, by a sense that this class of person, a member of the 1970s London literati, spoke always in measured, weighted Prose. Even at the play’s climax, in a confused whirlwind of lust, (pretty terrible) poetry and naïve declarations—"All these words I’m using, don’t you see, they’ve never been said before"—he struggles to generate the necessary spark. It’s as if he doesn’t quite believe it himself.

Amanda Ryan’s Emma is vocally rich but like the others suffers an isolation imposed by the production. This is never better highlighted than when she appears early on, umbrella in hand, rained on from above in an effect which is beautiful and striking but links neither forward nor back.

As the cuckolded Robert, Mason Phillips has less of the brunt of the text to bear, but at times he too seems—not stilted, but arch, perhaps. He at least wears the intellect of the publisher well, with an insouciant grin, and in his sozzled restaurant speech he serves up a degree of intensity and feeling which is unfortunately wanting elsewhere in the play. His is the stand-out, most nuanced performance.

The second half is in general more powerful, closer to impassioned—signalled at the act break by the first signs of any such physical spark. Some of this is deliberate and down to the structure of the play, but there is throughout a sense of actors not manoeuvring entirely with ease around the spaces they supposedly habitually occupy. It’s all rather proper, as though literary agents in the 1970s behaved always in a well-mannered, hands-off way, even when lusting after each other’s spouses.

What we’re left with is a well-intentioned, respectful reading of the master’s text, but one which I suspect falls short of the impassioned, irony-drenched story his text makes possible—and which he himself, as we now know, lived.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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