It’s been ages since I’ve seen some Pinter, and in fact this was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first exposure to the aforementioned late playwright. I warned her about the pauses. If they’re doing it really well, I suggested, then you won’t realise they’re pauses. If they aren’t, it’ll feel like they’ve forgotten their lines. I did once see an amateur production of The Room and The Dumb Waiter. On that occasion they really did forget their lines; and they also had no one in the prompt corner. I realised the pauses had gone on too long when one of the actors called out “Can we have a prompt please”, which was followed by a hurried scuttling of footsteps backstage, the sound of table and chair legs scraping on floors, and the flipping of paper pages before a lone voice gave them that oh so important line.
It will come as no surprise that Nick Bagnall’s new production of Betrayal is a bit more professional than that. When you enter the Crucible auditorium the deceptively simple set looks stunning. How can a pub table and a couple of chairs look so effective? By the addition of a brightly lit, glass topped floor, busily scattered underneath with compartments full of detritus, providing a visual metaphor of all sorts of goings-on beneath the surface. Simple basic scenery is used throughout the play, including a bed – possibly the best symbol imaginable for an adulterous affair – that first makes its portentous appearance slowly descending down from the flies like a veritable deus ex machina. Excellent use is made of the Crucible’s revolving stage; nothing is gimmicky, everything helps to tell the story.
The trick to the structure of this play is the fact that it is told in reverse. The first scene is the final scene chronologically speaking – 1977. The last scene is the first – 1968. So our first view of Emma and Jerry is their meeting in a pub long after their affair has fizzled out, realising something of what has gone on between them in the past, and the new revelation that she has told her husband, Robert – Jerry’s best friend – about what had happened between the two of them, much to Jerry’s horror. Jerry feels he has to see Robert to talk about it; and from there we go back in time. The structure works really well as there are so many betrayals going on, on so many levels, and between so many people. You, the audience, already know what the characters don’t yet know which gives a great sense of dramatic irony, that continues throughout the journey back in time to the final (first) scene – where Pinter has reserved a last twist evident in that final tableau.
John Simm plays Jerry and he is superb. Born to play Pinter as he uses those pauses so naturally! Even while he is silent you just have to look at his eyes to see all the realisations, troubles, misunderstandings, and general horrors of life that his brain is absorbing before he next engages to speak. As the play proceeds, his sad and troubled world regresses back to a time of comfort, physical pleasure and, originally, excitable hope that this wonderful woman whom he adores, might – just might – adore him too. You can see the strains and worries gradually lift from his expression as he gets more youthful and more optimistic. That 1968 Jerry feels like a completely different person from 1977. He just nails every nuance of the character.
Ruth Gemmell’s Emma is a more reserved kind of person. In 1977 she too is deeply troubled, and extraordinarily outraged that her husband has been having an affair, which is a beautiful example of how the play ironically and creatively tackles its twisted moral questions of loyalty and betrayal. She lightens up a bit during the most passionate days of the affair, but starts the story again as rather a reserved person, shocked but secretly delighted at Jerry’s advances, which clearly appeal to her compulsive nature. You sense a little that hers is the character that advances the story, but that’s it’s the fall-out for the men that interests Pinter somewhat more. Nevertheless it’s a really good performance.
As Emma’s husband Robert, Colin Tierney starts the play troubled but balanced, resigned to his lot and seemingly remarkably forgiving. One of the best scenes of the play is where he finds out about his wife’s relationship and you almost physically see his heart break. It’s superbly well done. At the beginning of the story, his naturally rather dour character makes a great contrast with Jerry and it’s not terribly surprising that Emma finds Jerry the more attractive prospect.
Another great scene shows Jerry and Robert dining in a restaurant, chock-full of dramatic irony. Their table slowly revolves around the stage, enabling everyone to see all aspects of the scene. First, you may be in Robert’s place, looking at Jerry trying to hide the secret of the relationship. Then you are in Jerry’s place, looking at Robert drinking too much as a way of suppressing his personal sadness. Superbly directed, and revelatory whilst still maintaining the betrayals.
There’s also an honourable mention to the fourth member of the cast, Thomas Tinker, who plays the Italian restaurant waiter just as those waiters always are – tediously nostalgic for the glories of Venice – but moreover who spends the rest of the production as scenery shifter which could end up very messy if he gets it wrong. His discreet efficiency gives you confidence though that it’s in safe hands.
The whole production is a thing of painful poignancy, clarity and precision, and with a bizarrely inexorable journey to the beginning. So many betrayals get hinted at – we never really get to the bottom of Casey, or why Judith was at Fortnums and Masons that day. Even if they are innocent, the play just makes you suspicious of everything. In the programme, Nick Bagnall says they have tried to make this production one where they ignore anything unless it’s on the page or revealed within a moment – and it really works. They let the text do the talking, and it’s remarkably eloquent.
We saw a preview performance on Saturday 19th May. I don’t normally choose to see previews because you never know if they might change things again before the proper first night. I can’t imagine why they might want to change anything though. Maybe just refresh everyone’s memory about turning off mobiles. The final scene was all but spoiled by a recurrent ringtone which stopped and started three times. It even made some sectors of the audience titter nervously. Top marks to Mr Simm for battling through it regardless. I wonder if that explained Miss Gemmell’s withholding of a curtain call smile. Previews are fantastic value at the Crucible. A packed house saw this riveting production for just a tenner each. No interval, just 95 minutes of unadulterated adulterous drama. An excellent production of a great play.