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February 9, 2009 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Betrayal

Betrayal
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Ross Jolly
with Toby Leach, Danielle Mason, Jason Whyte and Daniel Armstrong

Circa
24 January – 21 February 2009

Harold Pinter died last year. He was, without doubt, one of the greatest playwrights of the past hundred years. His sad passing hangs heavily over Circa’s newly minted production of what is arguably his masterpiece: Betrayal. When you consider how far in advance Circa plans its programme, it is safe to assume that what was, on conception, simply just a good solid classic to kick of the theatrical year has become something of much larger importance. Betrayal is Wellington, if not New Zealand, theatre’s farewell to one of the great monoliths of the form. It is under this weight of expectation and significance that it sags and breaks.

Betrayal is most noted for its reverse chronological structure. Telling the story of an affair between two upper middle class Londoners. It starts with a meeting between the former lovers years after the affair ended and works its way back by way of the affair to the moment before it begins. This retroactive narrative allows the play not to focus on the tawdry, melodramatic facts of the affair itself (based on Pinter’s own affair with Joan Bakewell) but on the quieter moments and silent violent truths within it.

Pinter writes story as sub-text. The plot is not the plot. What happens is not important. What is important in Pinter, more so than any other dramatist except maybe Beckett, is what happens within the characters and how they do or don’t express that. So, it is fair to say that there is an art to performing Pinter, one that it seems the cast has not fully grasped. Danielle Mason as Emma and Toby Leach as Jerry, the two adulterers in question, both fail to deliver the subtle inflections demanded by the text. They do not miss it by much, both performing very laudably, they simply don’t arrive in the Pinter place. Mason resorts too readily to gurning, allowing her character to wear her feelings too heavily on her face, removing all need for the audience to investigate or invest in the character. Leach, affected by a leg injury, does a very valiant job of performing on crutches, but seemed thrown for the whole production, fumbling quite a few lines and seeming distracted for extended periods. This could simply be chalked up to first night nerves but was disruptive enough to be a problem worth noting. Although together they have very good sense of chemistry there is an absence of intimacy between them, even when supposedly being in the throes of passion. Jason Whyte playing Robert, Emma’s husband, on the other hand, is a revelation. Giving a performance of precision and insight, finding exactly the right mark between emotional violence and kitchen sink comedy, cutting every pregnant pause to the quick, Whyte gives a Pinter performance of very high quality. It is more than a pity that he is not afforded as much stage time as the others.

The opening night had the odd technical problem – the slides denoting what year it was became stuck on 1975, confusing for some audience members about the nature and flow of the reverse timeline. Ross Jolly’s direction veered often towards needless archness. While it is true that Pinter does not write strict realism, he, also, does not write in the leaden broad strokes evident in Jolly’s direction. For instance, he takes the famous final moment of the play (‘They stand and look at each other’) and clouds it with painfully self-conscious music and lighting. It is with moments like this that the show fizzles much more than it should. It needs to be said that this is by no means a terrible production. It just isn’t Pinter. And as such, it is not a good way to say goodbye.

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About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

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