Betrayal (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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From Gustave Flaubert to Woody Allen, the subject of infidelity has proved to be fertile literary ground for countless writers. No wonder: violating all sorts of social and evolutionary codes, unfaithfulness in sex and love carries the potential to activate our deepest fears and fantasies.

Funny and desperately sad, shameful and thrillingly clandestine, the act of cheating on a partner is loaded with dramatic possibility, so much so that it’s become a cliché bound to a particular variety of white, middle- and upper-class experience — think Allen’s fumbling, stuttering New Yorkers on the one hand, the soaring eroticism of Flaubert or Ondaatje on the other.

The milieu of Harold Pinter’s semi-autobiographical 1978 play Betrayal is the same, only transposed to the British country-club set of the playwright’s own time. At a party in 1968, married literary agent Jerry (Nathan O’Keefe) tells Emma (Alison Bell) that he is madly in love with her. On the other side of the door, as Emma casually points out, is publisher Robert (Mark Saturno), who happens to be her husband. Jerry was Robert’s best man. What begins with a drunken declaration in a bedroom spirals into a seven-year affair and a fraught love triangle that, across pubs, flats and holidays to the Mediterranean, hangs together on equal parts love and lust, deception and delusion.

The nine scenes are haunted by an unavoidable question that is also embedded in the play’s dramaturgy: who knew what when? We see events in reverse chronological order, a pioneering conceit that ramps up both the tension and the irony, situating the audience as time travellers on a journey from the affair’s bitter conclusion to its euphoric start that, in Pinter’s hands, is rendered both spontaneous and inevitable, hopeful and grimly fatalistic.

With its small cast and forensic gaze, Betrayal is a kind of chamber play. This production has transferred to the Melbourne Theatre Company from the State Theatre Company of South Australia and its director Geordie Brookman confines the action to a high-walled, polygonal space that sits as far downstage as practicable, and to equip the actors with head mikes. Both strategies are wise, collapsing the distance between audience and performer, and allowing for a more nuanced, almost filmic style of performance — even if the actors still occasionally seem swamped.

Each of the performers rises to the occasion nevertheless, especially Bell who — in a play in which it can feel as though the most significant love affair is between the two men — provides a beautifully understated and wrenchingly human portrait of the emotional turmoil and mental gymnastics that must adhere in long-term affairs. I liked Saturno’s performance too — reminiscent of a young Edward Fox in its clipped, gravelly insouciance and barely contained menace — and, even though I’m finding it increasingly hard to banish from my mind his familiarly impeccable comic antics, O’Keefe makes for an enjoyably gormless Jerry.

All three actors, no doubt with careful guidance from Brookman, make full use of Pinter’s famous pauses, those almost unbearable lacunae with which Betrayal is peppered (there are, in all, 140 of them). Brookman’s great achievement here is not only, as his program notes make clear, that he understands the play’s musicality, but also that he recognises where it lies: in the notes we don’t hear as well as those we do, those silences charged with crisis. This, after all, is the language of betrayal, of the deception beginning with delusion that allows it to flourish — the unspoken, the half-said, the inexpressible.

It’s a shame that, in this production, rather too much of this finesse is overruled by Jason Sweeney’s electro, bass-heavy sound design that gratuitously pummels the ears between each scene as a vast clothes rack revolves around the perimeter of the playing space. In combination, sound and set change add up to heavy-handedness, an odd display of overstatement — stating what exactly? — in a play dependent for its effect on intricacy and elusiveness. Contrastingly, Geoff Cobham’s subtly shifting lighting design is superb, hinting at unseen activity just beyond the walls of the play’s hermetic lounge rooms and hotel suites. Ailsa Paterson’s costume design is strong too, warmly tracing the vagaries of 1970s fashion without fetishising them.

Many of Betrayal’s early critics dismissed the play as a work about merely one place and one time, about a privileged class whose maneuverings amounted to nothing more than a minor study of the London literary scene circa 1978. I think these critics mistook context for content.

This is where this production, driven by three fine performances and Brookman’s perceptive direction, succeeds — in reminding us, in its smaller, stiller moments, that all of Pinter’s plays are powder kegs, deep essays in how not to give the volatile mixture that underlies all of our lives the final shake it needs to set the whole thing off. It is from here that Pinter’s domesticated suspense and violence emerges but, of course, none of this would matter if the playwright didn’t allow us to empathise with his characters, however objectionably they may behave.

I had significant misgivings about this production but I forgot them all in that final moment, freighted with a heartbreaking sense of the betrayal of, above all else, hope.

This review was first published after its opening at its Adelaide season at the Dunstan Playhouse last month. Image: Nathan O’Keefe and Mark Saturno in Betrayal, is at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner Theatre until September 19. Photo by Shane Reid.

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