As the recent Ashley Madison dating website hacking continues to make global headlines, generate heated discourse and forge irreparable human damage, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production could not be more pertinent, timely or pitch – perfect.
Written in 1978 by Harold Pinter, ‘Betrayal’ is considered one of the late English playwright’s most notable and powerful works. The story, about a young woman’s extramarital affair with her husband’s best friend, is made all the more gripping in that it was loosely based on Pinter’s own seven year infidelity with Joan Bakewell, a presenter for BBC Television.
‘Betrayal’s’ brilliance lies in its smart episodic structure. For, apart from the play’s searing connection to Pinter’s own personal life, the author has constructed an economic narrative which runs in reverse chronological order.
This device has been used to great dramatic effect since in two stage musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ (1981), and Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’ (2001) as well as three independent films, ‘Two Friends’ (directed in 1986 by Jane Campion), Atom Egoyan’s ‘Exotica’ (1994), and Francois Ozon’s ‘5 x 2’ (2004).
The delicious pay – off, is although all of the above works claim heartbreaking conclusions, each instead closes on an ironically ‘happy’ note.
Told in seven extended scenes, Betrayal covers a time span from 1977 to 1968. Its three characters are Emma (played by Allison Bell), her husband Robert (Mark Saturno) and his best friend, Jerry (Nathan O’Keefe). Sharing a palpable chemistry, in director Geordie Brookman’s sensitive care, their work together is subtle yet quietly electrifying.
For example in the hotel bedroom segment between partners, Emma and Robert, when he questions the motives behind a letter his wife has received from Jerry, reminded me of a quote from the comedy motion picture classic, ‘Tootsie’.
There, Dustin Hoffmann (as Michael Dorsey) is helping his friend, Teri Garr (as Sandy Lester) to prepare for an audition. His words of advice, “Have the anger, but don’t show it to me,” resonate throughout Betrayal.
What should be a relaxing overseas trip instead leaves Robert running through a gamut of controlled desperation. Yet, as he slowly skins back his wife’s actions, his body becomes tied up in knots. His voice is never raised, but inside, you sense that the character is screaming.
Pinter’s minimalist writing allows viewers to slowly know, understand and evaluate the trio. Through his use of casual yet richly subtextual dialogue, we recognize their conscious choices and the painful consequences each must ultimately face.
Pinter’s play also has extended periods of silence between the actors, something that the fast cutaway nature of film or television would never allow. This unspoken layer completely draws one in. What we are left with is the players communicating their resignation with merely a look, a glance, or a regretful middle distance stare.
A fourth supporting character, John Maurice’s Italian waiter, however, adds several key moments of comic levity to break up proceedings.
On a technical level, Geoff Cobham is responsible for the intelligent set design.
Creating a circular stage bordered and shaped by a rear arc of vertical strips, his vision looks not unlike half drawn blinds or the bars of a massive cage. A clothes rack crammed with outfits and other everyday objects, revolves between scenes, manically marking the duelling movements of space and time.
It should be noted that Cobham also blocked the powerful mood lighting. In the early scenes, the actors are lit to look dull and drawn, but appear much brighter and alive later on.
Costuming by Alisa Paterson underpins this visual journey, with period outfits becoming smarter and indeed, happier too, throughout the play’s ninety minute running time.
Jason Sweeney’s sound engineering is crisp and clear, crucial for the appreciation of Pinter’s words, verbal clues and their inherent meaning.
‘Betrayal’s’ expert team must be congratulated for composing a deeply personal piece. For at times, I felt like I was actually spying on the playwright’s characters during their most private moments.
MTC’s masterful and arresting production plays until October 3.