Written by Harold Pinter. Directed by Andrea Donaldson. Until Sept. 22 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane. soulpepper.ca or 416-866-8666
“Listen, I didn’t want to see you for nostalgia, I mean what’s the point?”
Emma (Virgilia Griffith) delivers this line to her former lover Jerry (Ryan Hollyman) quick and dry, her curtness clipped with a posh British accent, in the opening scene of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which tracks a love triangle backwards through time between Emma, Jerry and Robert (Jordan Pettle), Emma’s husband and Jerry’s best friend.
Setting the play in the era in which it was written — 1968 to 1977 London — director Andrea Donaldson delivers an esthetically rich production that’s cool, aloof and biting, but nostalgic it’s not.
Pinter’s best-known play is concerned with the way our three lovers manoeuvre shifting power dynamics with the secrets they hold, where knowledge is the meaningful indicator of status, when all three are firmly placed in the upper echelons of London culture. In Donaldson’s production, not only is knowledge power; vulnerability is a weakness, which is in line with Pinter’s obsession with subtext but also keeps an audience at arm’s length from this multi-layered love story.
On Ken MacKenzie’s stylish wood-panelled set, Hollyman, Pettle and especially Griffith are eye candy throughout the show’s tight 90 minutes, in flared plaid pants and flowing silks and knits. There’s a soap opera air that’s heightened by orchestral interludes during scene transitions (by sound designer Richard Feren).
The production’s slick appearance matches Donaldson’s direction of these characters as presentational. She leans into particularly sharp flourishes, like our first meeting with Pettle’s Robert. As he reveals to Jerry that he has known about the affair for much longer than Jerry believed, he swirls his whiskey and punches each word in “four years ago.”
In the next scene, which travels back to when Emma’s and Jerry’s affair was still active, Griffith takes a seat in the background, situated between the two men, and simply watches them converse, throwing multiple untruths back and forth like a tennis match. It’s a literal representation of the way each character postures for another. Even when Emma is forced to be honest with Robert on vacation in Italy, Griffith is contained and quick, kept at a distance from her husband as he paces and fumes internally.
This take opens up other moments of potential falseness — is Robert telling the truth when he admits to hitting Emma because he felt like giving her a good “bashing”? Does Emma mean it when she calls her apartment with Jerry a home and desires a future with him? Do Jerry’s theatrics around professing his desire for Emma arise out of a night of drinking or real feeling?
The approach does allow for more flexibility around the play’s dated gender dynamics, not to mention an offhanded comment about spousal abuse, but these aspects aren’t played entirely as manipulations, which makes it difficult to parse the intentions or find any romance in this triangle.
The result is an entertaining look at three rich, intelligent people toying with each other but, as an exploration of desire and relationships, it’s stiff and cold.
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When we travel back to the first spark of betrayal, after experiencing the nine-year trajectory it sets off, there’s disappointingly little payoff, just more of the same tricks.
Betrayal is Pinter’s masterpiece, and Donaldson and her cast delight in his subtext, but this trip down memory lane could use more rose-coloured glasses.