Sunday, October 13, 2013

‘Betrayal’: Backstabbing, British Style

American audiences tend to like their domestic dramas to be…well…dramatic.  George and Martha going for the jugular in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or perhaps the monstrous Violet Weston spewing venom at her loved ones in Tracy Letts’s August:  Osage County. 

Against this backdrop, what to make of the celebrity revival (Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz star; Mike Nichols directs) of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now in an all-but-sold-out limited engagement at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre? 

Betrayal, which was first produced in 1978, lacks the vicious bite of the aforementioned works.  It lacks, as well, the air of menace and mystery that Pinter had come to be associated with from his earlier plays (The Homecoming is perhaps the best example).   And even though Pinter fiddles with the passage of time, mostly working backward over a period of a decade in the lives of the characters, Betrayal is quite straightforward and unexpectedly easy to follow. 

Because of this, you may be lulled into thinking there is not much to it, the deconstructing of a now-ended affair, where menace and mystery have been replaced by subtlety and style.  Yet eschewing the sturm und drang embraced by the likes of Albee and Letts, Pinter still manages to show us a world that is every bit as ugly and hurtful as those other playwrights conjured up in their far noisier works.

Indeed, it is the characteristically British repression of feelings and the silences born of determined pride, upbringing, and social constraints, that contribute to the sad tale this many-layered play brings to the fore.  

Betrayal is written in 9 short scenes, the first of which takes place in 1977 as Emma (Ms. Weisz) and Jerry (Rafe Spall) meet for a drink two years after their seven-year affair has ended, and the last in 1968 when it begins. Each scene is self-contained, yet each provides a piece of the puzzle that needs to be combined with the others in order to make sense of the whole.   

Mike Nichols has directed the play as if it were a musical composition with nine interlaced movements—theme and variations—a concept that is helped along by the performance between scenes of actual piano and cello music composed for the production by James Murphy.  (I pause to note that at the performance I attended, members of the audience clapped at the end of each scene, much as some concertgoers clap at the end of movements in a classical musical performance). 

The play’s title is informative enough about the main theme, although a better title might be Betrayals, since there are many such little murders taking place.  Apart from the obvious one of Emma and Jerry’s affair (both have been married to their respective spouses for the entire time), we find that Emma’s husband Robert (Mr. Craig) has been having affairs himself over the years, and that Robert and Jerry, reportedly the best of friends, have betrayed each other as well through lies and secrets. 

What is especially striking in all of this meshugaas is the play’s reflection of the place of women in the societal hierarchy—at a time when, at least in the U.S., the women’s rights movement was at its zenith.  Emma seems to have fallen into her affair with Jerry only because he has paid attention to her in a way her husband hasn’t, yet far from feeling empowered, or at least feeling like the equal to her conniving spouse (sauce for the goose, etc.), she steps into the same domestic role with Jerry that she has led at home. 

The playwright makes much use of domestic imagery when it comes to Emma--how she looks in her apron, the tablecloth she brings to the rented room where she and Jerry meet, and her cooking of dinner.  Robert also casually mentions hitting her on occasion, and he makes it clear to her that women are not invited to tag along when he hangs out with his male friends. The play’s most overt act of cruelty takes place in a scene in which Robert, on vacation with Emma in Italy, coerces her into admitting to the affair—although it is the opportunity to display the power he has over her rather than any real dismay at the revelation that drives his behavior.  The rules, it seems, have been written by the men. Women play the game at their own risk.

Betrayal offers a striking commentary on the age-old battle between the sexes, and it could certainly lead to some interesting post-play discussions among male/female couples who attend together, especially around concepts like blame and responsibility.

One imagines that Mr. Craig and Ms. Weisz, a couple in real-life, had such conversations while preparing for their performances.  Both actors are excellent in their respective roles, as is Mr. Spall as Jerry—a feckless man’s man whose own motivations remain as unclear as those of his counterparts.  He plays the game because that’s what men do.

In Pinter’s world, there is no end to the cycle of treachery.  No one learns any lessons, and the game goes on unabated.  In its own relentlessly quiet way, Betrayal is far more disturbing than any of its more confrontational counterparts.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment