Betrayal is critically regarded as one of English playwright, Harold Pinter’s, major dramatic works, Penned in 1978, the play is inspired by Pinter’s real life clandestine extramarital affair with BBC TV presenter of the day, Joan Bakewell.
Pinter’s affair lasted for seven years so it is, indeed, art mirroring life as Pinter’s characters, Emma and Robert, undergo the machinations of their affair in this Laurence Olivier Award winning play.
Alison Bell (King Lear, Doubt, Blackbird, As You Like It, Hedda Gabler) plays Emma, described by Bell as quite an enigmatic character on the page.
“She’s a very bright, articulate woman, but remarkably inept at expressing her needs and wants. So my way into the character was through careful study of what she does not or cannot say and do. I filled in the gaps in a way that helps me understand and inhabit her psyche.”
“I think she is a woman of her time. She’s educated, but not an Oxbridge graduate like the men. She’s just a fraction older than the generation who ushered in the social revolutions of the late 60’s/70’s and so lives within a more conservative social paradigm. She’s a mother of two and for most of the nine year period of the play reliant on her husband for financial support. She embarks on a successful career running an art gallery in her late 30’s at a time when the relationships with both Jerry and Robert have become particularly fraught, perhaps searching for fulfilment outside of these intimate relationships.”
“Pinter alludes to the fact that she was pregnant when she and Robert were married. (“I wasn’t in white”), and it proves an unfulfilling union. I think she’s a woman who doesn’t feel particularly loved by her husband, who needs and seeks that and allows the frisson with Jerry and his grand romantic gestures to fill that gap. I don’t think she has a particularly high self-esteem but longs for passion and connection and respect.”
While the play’s premise is based on infedility, it isn’t a piece simply about that says Bell. “It’s an exploration of the tiny (and not so tiny) betrayals we all exact on each other and ourselves as we navigate life. It exposes the frailty of the human heart and ego and the complexities of both intimate and platonic love. This play beautifully captures the way people struggle with emotional courage, and how readily we compromise ourselves, our needs, desires, ambitions in the interest of protecting ourselves or others from hurt, failure and disappointment.”
Pinter died in 2008 (although Bakewell is still alive) so, perhaps for some, any performance of this play now may not resonate with the same truth as it may have when Pinter lived. However, it was certainly performed in his life time and, one would imagine, those actors feeling the higher stakes of getting things ‘right’ when entering into the lives of his semi- autobiographical tale.
Bell explains that because there is no possibility of either Joan or Michael Bakewell seeing the MTC production she doesn’t feel beholden to the real life characters. However, what raises the stakes for her is the exceptional writing. “I truly believe this is one of the finest, most nuanced, painfully true texts I’ve had the privilege of working on.”
Bell graduated from the VCA in 2004, and has been working ever since. As an actor, she has enjoyed so many of her jobs but her favourites to date are: “Blackbird (an extraordinary tragedy) for the MTC and Laid (a marvellous comedy) for the ABC, oddly enough for very similar reasons: the people I was working with, the scripts I was working on and an end result I was very proud to be part of.”
Bell confesses her dream role to be Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. “I adore her. She feels very contemporary for one of Shakespeare’s ladies. And I love smart, funny women… and smart, funny men. The dynamic between she and Benedict is glorious.”
MTC brings Pinter’s innovative reverse chronology story of love, scandal, deception and betrayal to the Southbank Theatre opening this week. Says Bell: “It’s one of the greatest plays ever penned. Just that.”
August 26 – October 3