By BRUCE DENNILL
Betrayal / Directed by Greg Homann / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
In response to the stilted dialogue of the first scene of this play about infidelity, lies, ego and self-absorbtion, the opening night audience spent a good deal of time laughing. It was an odd response, and perhaps a conditioned one: Harold Pinter is a revered playwright and the characters on stage at the time – Emma (Carly Graeme) and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) – are clearly uncertain about how to conduct themselves, so hence it must be both profound and funny?
In truth, there is nothing, bar moments of black absurdity, worth laughing at as Pinter unravels the love triangle between a married couple, Emma and Robert (Antony Coleman) and Robert’s “oldest friend” – a phrase used often, but never convincingly – Jerry. The playwright uses reverse chronology, beginning after the affair between Emma and Jerry has ended and closing the play with the moment (no less awkward than the first scene) when the Jerry initiates the whole ill-advised scenario.
All three of the characters are highly intelligent but emotionally barren – or nearly so. There is a narrow range of smugness between them, with Emma perhaps the most vulnerable and Robert the most romantically sterile, while all are concerned more with status than with tenderness. Jerry and Emma, while both married to other people, buy a flat together in which to enjoy – though that’s the wrong word – their liaisons, and are then, apparently, surprised when the place fails to engender any feelings of belonging. Robert discovers their affair long before it ends, but leaves them to it with calculated coldness, playing them off each other whenever all three are in the same room together.
This is a bleak but brilliantly constructed narrative, biting and brutal to the extent that unattached audience members may, after seeing it, seriously question the wisdom of getting married while having their reservations about embarking on an affair firmly reinforced. That many of the details in the play are based on Pinter’s own seven-year extramarital affair makes it even more conflicting viewing. If this story were simply the product of a creative mind with a rather desolate view of relationships, it would still be an excellent, if austere, piece of work. But the understanding that the playwright is as culpable as his characters for the pain felt by the other characters or stirred in his audience adds an extra level of discomfort for the onlooker.
All three actors are excellent – Graeme brittle and (of the three) relatively tentative; Fairfoot superficially brash but grounded in uncertainty; and Coleman cynically edgy and unpredictable. The simple set is cleverly designed, with subtle projections helping to guide the audience through the changing timeframe. And the costumes are excellent, with the cuts and patterns of the time often looking rather daft – light relief! – in the context of a modern theatre.
It’s easy to see why the play, written in 1978, has endured so well. And it’s an indictment on contemporary society that many have not learned from the characters’ disillusionment and ennui.