Harold Pinter
Gala Theatre, Durham

Production photo

What I am about to say may, in some quarters, be condemned as heresy but it needs to be said. Many theatres in the regions feel that, when they mount their own productions rather than acting as a receiving house, they must do "local" plays with "local" themes by "local" writers. All too often, because good writers are few and far between, these plays turn out to peddle stereotypes, go for cheap laughs or are simply sentimental. I read not so long ago a comment on a "local" play of the late 40s which said, "If this is all the dramatic material the county affords, we would do better to comb some different neighbourhood ... Where are the insights of poetry and imagination? ... This wasn't drama at all, but a glorified charade, in which (the actors) had kindly consented to perform, a presentation of ourselves to ourselves, dressed up in our neighbour's borrowed clothes... while recognisably ourselves all the time." Plus ça change...

It was with relief, therefore, that I saw that the Gala had decided to present a series of classic plays and had made the bold choice to begin with Pinter's 1978 National Theatre production, Betrayal, which was directed by Peter Hall and starred Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon and Daniel Massey. A bold move, indeed, even though Betrayal is generally regarded as the author's most accessible play. Did director Simon Stallworthy and his team pull it off?

The first thing that must be said is that the play feels as fresh 31 years on as it did then. Playing the love affair between Emma (Arabella Arnott) and Jerry (David Shelley), who is Emma's husband Robert's best friend, backwards removes any suspense, any wondering what will happen, but, far from being confusing, enables the audience to focus on the moment and pick up on the tiny clues and brings the multitude of betrayals (for they are many, and not restricted to the obvious) into clear sight.

It is partly, of course, the universality of the situation, but also the seemingly simple language (and those trademark Pinter pauses, especially in the first scene) which provide the driving force behind the play. Pinter writes dialogue which is so close to normal speech but, at the same time, so loaded with depth of meaning that it is almost poetic.

And then there is the rhythm (which, of course, is why those pauses are so important). The director and cast of three must get this right, and in the main Stallworthy, Arnott, Shelley and Jonathan Jones (who plays Robert) do so.

Designer Lucy Campbell puts them on a set which consists of mirrors on three sides so we see the action reflected back at us from different angles which adds an interesting twist to the piece. Each element of the various scenes is also on stage throughout, moved into position by two waiters (one of whom, played by Gordon Russell, appears in the restaurant scene).

A brave start to the classic series, and a successful one. I look forward to the next.

Running until 28th February

Reviewer: Peter Lathan