Harold Pinter is a somewhat acquired taste. The Nobel Prize-winning British playwright’s work was distinctive in its knack for simplicity and complexity all at once. Betrayal is possibly Pinter’s most interesting example of his preoccupation with the fragility and emotional inconsistency of the human condition and the relationships implicated by it.
Betrayal examines a chronologically reversed seven-year period in the affair-laden lives of married couple Emma and Robert and their close friend (and Emma’s lover), Jerry.Deception and infidelity are second nature and compulsive to the trio to the extent where the characters themselves lose track and create their own undoing.
Tangled Web Theatre’s production, directed by Bruce Cochrane, succeeds in capturing the mood of the piece: one of subtle tension, heavy pauses and intricate exchanges. Presented sparsely and deliberately,the atmosphere and direction would have made Pinter himself proud.
However, it’s the performers who really shine here. Supported by Michael Fenemore’s solid portrayal in the difficult role of Robert, Eleni Miller, who plays the unapologetic and somewhat sociopathic Emma, is suave yet guarded with a calculated and emotional repression that is natural, absorbing and devastating. Her understated performance is hypnotic and exactly the right measure of Pinteresque.
Tim Constantine as the deceptive Jerry is exceptional, capturing the charm and truthfulness of the character without ever succumbing to any obvious or intentional malice or trickery, but rather, allowing the text to allure and reveal while maintaining Jerry’s authenticity and self-perceived ingenuousness.
The pair are mesmerising from the get-go with a believable and palpable dynamic, rich in nuance and wonder, managing to woo the audience to care and empathise, despite their deceitful, self-absorbed ways.
Betrayal in all its uncomfortable loitering and tension may not be for every taste, but for those who like their theatre raw, brooding and close to the bone, it’s just the ticket.
SEASON HAS ENDED.
by Kris Weber from THEATRE PEOPLE
Established in 2014, Tangled Web Theatre Productions is a new and exciting, independent performing arts group. As stated on the organisation’s website, their primary aim is ‘to bring to the stage, some of the many fine plays that were constantly being overlooked by theatre companies around Melbourne.’
To date, their varied list of choices includes:
- The Mercy Seat (by Neil LaBute);
- The Vandal (by Hamish Linklater);
- Killjoy (by Jerry Mayer);
- Don Bradman Lives Next Door (by Cenarth Fox);
- Other People’s Money (by Jerry Sterner); and
- Retreat (by James Saunders).
Rounding out their 2017 season, the company’s latest challenge is Harold Pinter’s award – winning work, Betrayal.
Penned by the renowned British playwright in 1978, Betrayal is essentially a suburban morality tale where art closely imitates life. Loosely based on the late author’s own experiences of marital infidelity, this gripping one – act piece packs a subtle yet realistic truth into ninety powerful minutes.
Betrayal’s timeframe runs from 1977 to 1968, in nine succinct snapshot episodes. Told in linear succession, the hook with this story is that the narrative builds from finish to start. Meaning as viewers, we are witness to events being played out in reverse, and without giving too much away, Betrayal essentially ends with a ‘happy’ ending.
It should be noted that Pinter was particularly known for incorporating long pauses and reflective silences into his writing, both of which are used to great effect. How characters react to one another, whether immediately or not, gives Betrayal an extra dimension of tension necessary to the script’s success.
For the record, two years ago I reviewed Betrayal for the Melbourne Theatre Company (held at the five hundred seat Sumner Theatre in Southbank). Recently, Tangled Web Theatre Productions personally contacted me to critique their staging of this timely piece.
In my seven years with Theatre People, I have never been in the position of reviewing the same show twice. Given how much I love this work, of course I couldn’t resist jumping at this opportunity. Knowing the plot and the outcome, of course, removes the element of surprise. In its place however, was the chance to concentrate instead, on how a company used the play’s parameters to put their own stamp on the show.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Staged at Northcote Town Hall’s West Wing Studio, this black box space does much of the groundwork in creating Betrayal’s sense of heightened isolation. Like shows produced by collectives such as Q44 Theatre and Red Stitch, audiences sit almost on top of the action. That intimate connection between viewers and the performers, allows us to enjoy these experiences up close and personal. Further, the actors never once break the fourth wall or acknowledge us, adding to the story’s secretive and measured privacy.
Pacing is also quite different from MTC’s take.
As my astute plus one for the evening pointed out, larger performance space may require dialogue to be drawn out to make a point. Here however, that approach has been replaced with much faster response times between characters, giving Betrayal’s plot and character development greater urgency and higher risk value. There is more at stake to lose. In director, Bruce Cochrane’s capable hands, this is an inspired and daring choice.
As Emma, Eleni Miller reinforces Cochrane’s vision. Her character invests everything in the affair; it is a heartbreaking journey to witness.
Her partner in crime, Tim Constantine as Jerry, treats their relationship as a bit more of a game. For the most part, through his eyes, this feels like a sexual union. He may love her, but Jerry initially acted upon his desires when he was drunk, and by contrast, Emma was stone cold sober.
Small details such as when Emma buys a tablecloth for their flat together, highlight that emotional chasm between them.
As Emma’s husband, Robert, Michael Fenemore plays her partner with resigned pride. Yes, he has been aware of their goings – on for a long time. But, not quite believing it, he communicates gruesome fascination that stops him from breaking them up.
Two separate scenes highlight Robert’s awareness. In the first episode, he lets Jerry know everything. In the second, played after Robert figures out for himself on a holiday to Venice what is going on, gives the latter scene ‘cat and mouse’ gamesmanship. (That key segment, set in a gourmet restaurant, is sweetly counterbalanced by Matthew Laurence, as a bumbling waiter.)
Betrayal is supported by an excellent technical team. Costumes (by The Betrayal Four), reinforce that nobody wins in a situation like this. Where the characters are dressed in dull tones in the latter stages of their relationship, earlier, their outfits are more bright, alive and colourful.
Fenemore’s stage design keeps props and other details to a healthy minimum. With a relatively small stage space to work with, his smart choices allowed easy movement for the actors during and between scenes.
Sound (by Ashleigh Baxter) and lighting (by Scott Hasse) keeps the action clean, sharp, and focused at all times. Static titles, projected onto a drop – down screen, set the tone and announced each scene prior to commencement. (Baxter was also responsible for sound and light operation, and Lyndsay C. Kirkham, solid and seamless stage management.)
Finally, Tangled Web Theatre’s production highlights and reinforces, by using the luxury of latitude to give life to this classic story, doesn’t need to be played an expected or specific way, for it to succeed.