Kemi Bo Jacobs as Emma and Philip Correia as Jerry. Pictures: Robert Day
To undertake a Harold Pinter play and sustain it for over a two week run shows just why Derby Theatre is such an important force for the Arts in the region.
And to attempt to approach it in a fresh and inventive new way should call for warm accolades as well.
Pinter first hit the London stage in 1957-58, with The Room and then The Birthday Party, which remains one of his best known plays. The Caretaker followed in 1960, while The Homecoming stems from the mid-Sixties. His early and mid-Seventies plays include Old Times and No Man’s Land. From the Eighties he would write twelve more stageworks.
So Betrayal (1978), an essentially domestic tale, falls late in, possibly at the end of, what we may term his middle period. The betrayals in question focus outwardly on two-timing in marriage: two of the characters, Emma (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and Jerry (Philip Correia) have been pursuing a seven-year affair which only latterly begins to lose impetus (they periodically nag each other like a husband and wife). It finished two years before the play starts. But it also explores the betrayal and multiple self-betrayals of the characters involved.
The play opens with the two meeting again and conducting a classic Pinteresque exchange, almost monosyllabic, crucifyingly formal and banal: virtually a denial, or a concealment, of all that had preceded. It sounds oddly like one of Pinter’s marvellous collection of 1959 sketches. It is indeed funny, to a point.
The formal innovation here is that the scenes actually move backwards, to the time of the very start of the affair. Each stage is meant to put a notch in the coffin of the implications for others – spouses, children – and the nature of supposed concealment itself. An irony is that Emma’s husband, Robert (Ben Addis), who is Jerry’s best friend (both are in publishing), has known of the entanglement for four years – i.e. since six years before the play’s opening, when Emma admitted it to him (is that a betrayal?) in an exchange of confessions. Robert is unperturbed, which makes Jerry’s consternation on finding out all the greater: is he, in a sense, irrelevant?
Ben Addis as Robert and Philip Correia as Jerry
The Director, Lekan Lawal, has been involved with Derby Theatre for 18 months as Resident Assistant Director as part of the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme. This is his first venture into a main house production of his own. He has acquired a special admiration for Pinter’s work, and for this play. ‘The more you interrogate it the more you discover that it’s a really complex investigation of the human condition, how we survive, and the way we react and interact with each other. There is a lot of subtext . . . the more you look at it, the more you see things going on below the surface.
[It’s] a look at how complicated affairs of the heart are, and an examination of male friendship . . . It’s not only about the clandestine affair and that secret love but also the breakdown of friendships and the betrayal of your own emotions – and that’s really universal.’
At Derby the setting and design makes use of several devices. Apart from the first scene – which being post-affair lies outside the main narrative – the action takes place in a large glass house, a bit like a penthouse flat. This provides all the settings (including the flat Jerry has rented for their dalliances), with various chattels, including a large bed, being circulated to a number of locations. The whole edifice (by Neil Irish) rotates, almost constantly, perhaps a little wearisomely, and this is counterpointed by a series of rear-projections, drawn from shots of the characters as they are actually speaking, filmed by the one, or usually two, members of the cast non-participant in that scene.
There are other shifts: a series of delaying costume changes, only a couple of which seemed to contribute anything of significance. Some gently characterful, lulling background music (from Sound Designer Paul Arditti) contributes to earlier scenes, occasionally flaring up later, not least in a party scene where colour really does cheer up the stage. The Lighting, by Arnim Friess, serves well.
The acting, it has to be said, including by Matthew Curnier, the fourth member of the ensemble who has one delicious scene as an Italian waiter, is consistently good. Correia’s Jerry is as inadequate much of the way through as he was at the start. Jacobs’ Emma knows her own mind, and makes her own decisions; she above all commands the stage and the action. Addis’s Robert is at the same time impetuous and level-headed: a decent enough, intelligent guy (both he and Jerry edited student mags, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively) with a nice, wry humour (‘I’m a bad publisher because I hate books’) and an affable gentle nature (‘You must come and have a drink.’) At one key moment when he and Emma kiss, we see that despite all, things are right and love is genuine. But he can still come out with a corker, like ‘You know, I’ve always liked Jerry more than I liked you.’ Ironic, or not?
The first half, a little functional, makes less impact than the second, where there are two splendid scenes: one between the three of them, and a later one between Emma and Jerry. One of those revealing ‘undertow’ moments comes when they ask each other, ‘Have you ever been unfaithful to me?’ The idea that there is the possibility of another betrayal – that lovers, as opposed to spouses, can commit to unfaithfulness - is momentarily disturbing, even shocking. Yet why?
There is also subject matter that plays a role of its own: the health and welfare of their children (two each); a recurrent invitation to play squash; a kind of Leitmotif of drink – sherry, wine, fizz. There is a lot of agreeing, of engaging in uncritical conversation, which is perhaps meant to offset the essential lie that underscores the three-way relationship. Except that (as Robert and Emma know all) it’s a kind of non-lie.
But all this, useful though it may seem (and the audience loved it), seems in a way to cloak a truth. It is almost as if the circling glasshouse, the games with cameras (which although wrenching the angles round, only really show us what we’re seeing already, albeit in a kind of skeletal way), the backward running film effects suggesting time being wound back, the fumbling costume alterations, the toying with set interiors, are all there for a particular reason: to suggest development and change and Lawal’s aspired-after lower ‘layers’ because they don’t exist in the staging or the play itself.
Those undercurrents – apart from the obvious, superficial albeit cruel ones - don’t really get brought out sufficiently in this staging, and one wonders whether Pinter himself is to blame. Pinter has left, as Lawal rightly points out, ‘lots of scope for interpretation’. The text is by and large deliberately bland, so that things, insights, have to be pulled out of it by invention; by gesture, or moves, or more than just plain bonhomie. What the audience enjoyed so much was not some undercurrent, to be dwelt on and reflected about later, but the simple and slightly bizarre unravelling of a tale of malpractice.
Things are made worse by Robert’s acquiescence – genuine, not feeble or cowardly, but also in the main – for its effect upon the story - colourless. Can we imagine Arthur Miller, or Sophocles for that matter, settling for chumminess and avoidance of blame as a subject for a play? Furthermore, by running the play’s action backwards, while giving the audience ‘the benefit of hindsight’, Pinter shed much of its tension from the start. We know where it ends. Our curiosity for how it evolved cannot match the intensity of a normal chronological build to an unexpected or even violent conclusion; or the ‘brooding menace’ which some attribute to many of his other plays.
For some, it works perfectly: ‘Even though the audience knows how the story ends, the narrative remains compulsive’, writes one academic. ‘Slowly the play yields up a subtle array of variations on the master-theme of betrayal. Every character betrays another and is betrayed in turn…Some betrayals are of ideals, some of principles, some of vows. Friendship, romantic love and family are all betrayed.’
Well, all we encounter is material on the surface, rather than buried and needing to be rediscovered by intuition or insight, by digging and unearthing. Did this worthy production with its general avoidance of touch and shy undemonstrativeness open up, amid Pinter’s notoriously circular conversations, the hoped-for Pandora’s box? For this writer, possibly not. To 01-04-17.