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Betrayal, Comedy Theatre

Harold Pinter
Directed by Ian Rickson
★★★
Courtesy of Sonia Friedman Productions
Rather controversially, I am always unsure about the works of Harold Pinter. On the one hand, I recognise that his writing is certainly very clever: economical and extremely human dialogue, emotionally reserved characters and the ability to develop the story and the characters without the use of longer monologues. On the other hand, I have always found his work a little hard to engage with on stage. Despite my misgivings, I had a good feeling about Betrayal; with Ian Rickson (Jerusalem) in the director’s chair, and Kristen Scott Thomas becoming the latest major name on the West End stage, I felt that perhaps this would be a Pinter that I could really get to grips with. Ninety minutes later, my feelings still haven’t really changed at all. 
Betrayal is regarded as one of Pinter’s major works, written in 1969 and based on his own experiences. It tells a story in reverse (a brilliantly clever bit of writing) with the action starting in 1977, and finishing in 1968. The plot revolves around a love-triangle between Robert and Emma, a married couple, and Jerry, Robert’s ‘close friend’ who is having an extra-marital affair with Emma. The reason it is a triangle is because everyone betrays everyone, whether it be directly through an affair, or whether it be via some other form of dishonesty. The play is beautifully written: the dialogue is as economical as ever, and the characters are very human and therefore complex. However, despite the continuing relevance in modern society of the play’s central themes of infidelity, betrayal and dishonesty, I still feel that the plot is a little… uninteresting. 
So what of the production? It is well put together by Rickson, with some strong performances. Kristen Scott Thomas (who looks incredible at the age of 51) has excellent stage presence, and somehow manages to look younger as the play goes on (backwards in time!). Ben Miles also produces some great stuff, particularly during the restaurant scene, which was a highlight for me as the energy picked up and properly gripped the audience for a few minutes. The best performance of the night comes from Douglas Henshall however, and what differentiates him from the rest is the attention-to-detail in his performance. Pinter’s characters are not loud and epic in the way that Rooster is in Jerusalem. They rely on finely tuned and extremely intricate acting; subtle changes of expression, powerful interactions between the characters, and clever use of the eyes. In this respect Henshall’s performance is really very impressive, and perhaps the only performance that delivers what is needed for Pinter’s challenging penning. 
Rickson’s production does get to grips with the more subtle elements of the script, and in many ways it is an excellent example of Pinter’s work. However, once again I struggled to truly engage with the characters and with the plot. On a one occasion I even found my eyes tearing up from yawning. Jeremy Herbert’s design, though not ground-breaking, is clever. In particular, the fact that the bed was constantly visible during the production was a great touch, and a persistent reminder of the central theme of infidelity. I did find myself feeling slightly bored during the scene changes; in a play where energy is often going to be a problem, I felt that the use of a standard revolve could have more adequately solved the location problem. 
It is hard to draw a conclusion to this production. On the one hand, I’m sure Pinter fans will very much enjoy it; in essence it is an excellent production. However, as is so often the case, I found myself leaving the theatre feeling as if something was lacking from the performance. Perhaps I am a philistine when it comes to Pinter, but for some reason I can’t help but find it difficult to get really caught up in his works. My conclusion therefore: it is a great show, but it still left me feeling like I needed something else.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Betrayal runs at the Comedy Theatre until 20th August 2011.
Box Office: 0844 871 7622 or book online at http://www.betrayaltheplay.com/tickets/

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  • I have yet to see Betrayal but I am a big fan of Pinter’s work and never miss a London production of a Pinter work. It is good to see that you acknowledge Pinter’s economy with words and the subtitles required by the actors to carry it off, less is more where Pinter is concerned.

    What draws me to Pinter is the unsettling and often menacing subtext that always hangs in the air. I think Michael Billington once wrote that the characters seem to be traveling on parallel lines.

    Anyway, an interesting review and I look forward to seeing it myself in August. Although, I very much hope not to be stifling a yawn at any point!

    Tony Withstandley

  • Thank for this Tony. I think perhaps part of the problem for me is that I have always found it difficult to properly engage with Pinter’s work. I am sure that as a fan of Pinter you will consider it to be a magnificent production – it really is a fantastic rendition of the play – it just wasn’t quite good enough to convert me into Pinter’s #1 fan, despite my huge appreciation for his work.

    I would recommend that you read Charles Spencer’s review for the Daily Telegraph. He said it is the finest Pinter he has seen.

    Enjoy!