Thursday, 29 June 2017

More thoughts on a play

Quite often, we end up writing about what needs to be said, not what we intend to say. This is because we become so inured to not listening to our real thoughts, that when we put it in charge of our hands and fingers in the strangely magical process of writing, out it all comes.

I reread the last article and realised that it didn't actually say that much about Betrayal per se, so I thought I should pay it a revisit. It's now nearly two weeks since we packed up and moved on, and it's all going hazy surprisingly quickly.  So, here are a few thoughts about the play, the story. and the process.

Now, being the diligent, attentive student I was back at Bangor University in the 1980s, of course Pinter was on our booklists, and of course I had the collected sets of his plays. Somewhere along the line, however, I omitted to read Betrayal. To be honest, my reading lists often remained in a state of theoretical possibility, due to my intensive studies of the underside of bar tables, gigs and the ceilings of other people's bedrooms. So, I came to the play with new eyes and no prior critical analysis. On first reading, it seemed relatively bland - in fact, this is by no means an uncommon opinion. It's only as you read it more, and perform it, that you realise how complex it truly is.

The story

Briefly, the story is about three characters - Jerry, his best friend Robert, and Robert's wife, Emma. Jerry has had an affair with Emma, which Robert discovers.

Yes, exciting, isn't it? Well, it is. Pinter tells the story in more or less reverse chronological order, so we first meet Jerry and Emma in a pub some two years after their affair has fizzled out. We then move to Jerry's study, where Robert reveals to an unknowing Jerry that he's known about the affair for years, then to Jerry and Emma's rather bleak love nest, where we watch them break up. Scene four sees all three characters in Robert and Emma's house, where a seemingly pointless discussion about babies and then about squash is in fact a series of barbs at Emma.

Scene five opens in a bedroom in Venice, where Robert manipulates Emma into revealing that she's had an affair, as he has discovered a letter from a rather reckless Jerry. Scene six is a week later in the love nest, where Emma fails to reveal to Jerry that Robert knows about the affair. In scene seven, set a few days later in an Italian restaurant, an increasingly drunk Robert struggles with how to handle the knowledge. Scene eight goes back two years, where Emma tells Jerry that she is pregnant by Robert, and the final scene takes us back to 1968 and the evening when Jerry initiates the affair through a drunken declaration of love.

I should also mention the other offstage characters, who hang in the air like ghosts and colour the protagonists' actions - Judith, Jerry's wife; his children, Sam and Sarah; Robert and Emma's children, Charlotte and Ned; and the two writers that both Robert and Jerry somewhat despise, Casey and Spinks.

It reminds me, in a way, of classical Greek tragedy - you have three characters onstage, for a start. You begin the play by knowing what has happened, just as the audience at a play in Athens would have known the story they were watching. Instead, we find out over the course of the play the why and the how of the story. But more of the classical Greek allusion later.

Themes

Obviously, the title is a bit of a giveaway. It's more than betrayal though: arguably, it's about memory and forgetting, unwillingness to face up to the truth or to difficult, painful situations. It's also about what is said in the place of what should really be said, or the absences where words should be. Much of the story resides in silence and pauses and in what the characters actually do (or not, as the case may be) rather than say.

None of the characters come out particularly well: Robert is domineering and misogynistic in the first few scenes, but a reason emerges for that; Jerry is charming, but in the final scene his pursuit of Emma is unsettling at least; and Emma comes across as mysterious and devious: why doesn't she tell Jerry that Robert knew of the affair? Who really is Ned's father? Why does she have the affair in the first place?

It's also a question of who, by the end of the play, is the most betrayed. Robert tells Emma that he's had affairs, but is he telling the truth or just trying to hurt her? Jerry is devastated by finding out that Emma has lied to him for years. Robert's behaviour has, it seems, been predicated by the discovery of his best friend's treachery. The answer to the question, it seems, will vary on who you ask - and the production you watch.

Stage setup, scene changes, lighting and music

As we were a very small group, the director (Adrian Tang) opted for a very simple black box stage with minimal props: one table, a sofa, a bed, a movable curtain track (with curtains that were green on one side and red on the other), a couple of stools and chairs, and another tall curtain track to evoke a window entrance. Scene changes involved all of us moving these various items on or off stage or placing them towards the back. The lighting was equally pared back - light designed to evoke sunlight through a window, or bouncing up off a Venetian canal, for example. an inspired choice was projecting the year on the back of the stage. It all made for fast, economical scene changes that really helped the action along.

The choice of music was fantastic at setting the scenes - A careful selection from the 1960s and 70s that set the mood and indicated the theme throughout.

Performance notes

As I said, I came to the play without any preconceptions, so I looked at Robert with fresh eyes. I deliberately refrained from watching any other performances because I didn't want to be influenced at all - or end up copying someone else's interpretation.

The initial reaction to the character was that he was unpleasant, domineering, manipulative and probably sociopathic. Oh, and a screaming misogynist. So, the first rehearsals saw me play it like that - all uptight and cold. I considered how he'd move, and envisaged a man on stiff, unbending legs - in fact, stiff and cold all over.

As rehearsals went on, however, I noticed how much rage was suffused in Robert's actions and that got me thinking about where that anger was emerging from. I also thought about the lines mentioning his affairs, and realised that he couldn't be that much of a monster, otherwise no one would touch him with a bargepole. He must, then, have a degree of charm about him. In addition, playing him as being stone cold throughout would have been rather two-dimensional: where was his humanity? Why was he so unpleasant at the beginning of the play?

Jerry, in scene one, in reply to Emma revealing Robert's affairs, says '..I never suspected...that there was anyone else...in his life but you.' I took this as a cue to mean that the affairs (if they really happened) only started after Robert's discovery in Venice, and that prior to that, he really did love Emma. Not only that, it meant, it seemed to me, that Robert was a coward when it came to anything emotional. This meant that scene five, rather than being a scene where he emotionally manipulates Emma, actually becomes one where he is almost fatally reluctant to face the truth of Emma and Jerry's betrayal, but has to push on ineluctably, just as Oedipus (in Sophocles) keeps pushing for the truth until it is revealed with truly terrible consequences.

This emotional cowardice makes greater sense of the restaurant scene, where you might expect Robert to confront Jerry, but which instead descend into allusions and a reluctance to confront. Robert realises that his friendship with Jerry is far more important to him than any other relationship, so he decides to protect it through refusing to confront the truth. In scene two, which is chronologically the last scene, his 'Well, it's not very important, is it? Been over for years, hasn't it?' is said almost with relief, that finally the problem is out of the way and they can get on with being friends.

I decided to aim at this vulnerability to create a more rounded character. What emerged was someone who was warmer, funnier - and gentler - than might have been expected. The man scorched by experience in the opening scenes gradually becomes more elastic and open until we see him in the bedroom in scene 9, bouncing into the room where he finds his best friend and his wife, entirely unaware that they have just kissed - indeed, the thought doesn't even cross his mind.

As I said in the last post, I kept finding out more and more about Robert, right up until the last night: different key words emerged and altered how he interacted with the others, but it was his gestures and actions that occasionally caught me by surprise. The way he resignedly filled an almost full glass of wine, for example (and which got a big laugh from the audience), or the way he suddenly struck out a hand and ruffled Jerry's hair in scene 9. The words create the character, but it's the character who says the words - and also, as it were, weaves the silences and pauses.

Given the chance, would I perform it differently? I'm not sure...it's an academic question, as I really won't return to this role, but it was really interesting to watch other performances and, as it were, compare notes. It's striking how often Robert is played as a cold manipulator all the way through, though - and there are definitely lines that I arguably should ave delivered differently. Nevertheless, I'm pleased with how I interpreted Robert.

Leaving him behind, I find that I feel rather sorry for him - he's both adrift in life and stuck in a job he doesn't like, and the shadow of his best friend's betrayal will, I suspect, haunt him for years but he won't ever truly acknowledge the pain. Were he to be a real person (and of course, in my mind he is), he would be eighty years old this year. Would he still be having lunch every week or so with Jerry in an Italian restaurant in central London, or has he retired to Torcello, where he spends his days reading Yeats on the grass?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thoughts on a play.

'It's all, all over.'
Another bucket of Corvo Bianco, please.

I've just come to the end of a run of Harold Pinter's Betrayal at the Progress Theatre in Reading. I performed as Robert, and the play itself received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Needless to say, I was absolutely bloody fantastic - as were my costars, Emma Sterry and Pete Cook, and Mathieu Menard in his cameo as a waiter. In fact, the whole ensemble - director Adrian, SM Tara, Steph, Helen in Wardrobe, and our light and sound guys, Rich and Jon - were brilliant.
Pete Cook as Jerry

Emma Sterry as Emma.

Well, that's my award acceptance speech more or less there.

Now, intermittent readers of this intermittent blog, I can hear your eyebrows creaking upward ever so slightly, as I don't think I mention theatre and acting much here (or previously over on Joy Of Raki). The truth is, I've been away - not just from this blog, but also from performance.

Well, 28 years, to be precise, if you don't count 23 years of standing up in front of people in a classroom, making a prat of myself with the aid of lesson plans. So I am making something of a tentative return to the stage - and this year, I've started with one simple question in my head - Can I actually still act?

The answer, so far, appears to be yes. Well, no one has thrown anything at me yet or stormed out of a performance in a rage, so  I must be doing something right.

But now the play is over, and I feel the mix of elation at a job well done and sadness at the end of the run that I believe most performers feel. It's been a cathartic experience on several levels, and I'm still trying to process it, to understand what the play meant to me and what acting in it meant. That's why I'm writing this post, so I can ruminate.

I joined Progress Theatre in October last year, and performed four roles in two plays, notably as the Father in Liz Carroll's How Do I Love Thee. I also promised to jump out of a plane to raise funds for the theatre, which on reflection seems to be a rather extreme initiation ceremony. I'm jumping on 16th July, by the way, if you'd care to sponsor me. As I said, I wanted to see of I could act, remember lines etc, but it was also a way to find out more about who I am and where I am. Ever since leaving Reading College, I have been beating around, seeking to create a new route for myself - doing writing and editing here, voice overs there, a bit of teaching yonder - and reflecting hard on who I am, the reasons for why things go well or where I bugger things up - and looking back at my roots was a natural part of the process.

Anyway, I also considered what I enjoyed about teaching, and I summarised it as three things:

  1. Helping people learn
  2. Explaining stuff clearly and concisely
  3. Standing up in front of people and making a prat of myself.
I hated the paperwork and internal politics of teaching. The latter, in particular, had become so toxic that it was making me ill, so I really do think that leaving the college was the best thing I could have done, even though things have not been easy.

Through the acting, I find I have discovered much more about myself. Crucially, it has allowed me to face my own painful emotions and feelings (and positive ones, too) in a way that has let me analyse and reassess them without being overwhelmed. I have chronic anxiety issues, and I have a tendency to hide these from myself or ignore them. I'm also adept at disguising them, so this admission may come as a surprise: after all, not only has my professional bread and butter involved standing up in front of rooms full of people, but you'd think the prospect of appearing on a stage was hardly conducive to alleviating stress. The fact is, however, that this anxiety has shaped my life, quite often for the worse, so I need to take it head on and wrest control back - and what better way to do that than through performance?

As a happy bonus, I unexpectedly discovered that I appear to have a decent singing voice, thanks in part to having to sing a hymn in How Do I Love Thee.

After the last show on Saturday night, Emma, being a diligent teacher as well as a fab actress, asked me (and Pete) three questions - What has been the best part of doing this play, what has been the worst, and what has been learned. I was still rather euphoric at that point, not to mention on the verge of being drunk, so my answers were based on my immediate impressions. Having had a few days' thinking time now, I can give a more considered reply.

The best part, without a doubt, was being part of an ensemble that brought the play and the characters to life. We spent hours discussing and analysing words, pauses, silences and motivations, and there is this almost alchemical way in which the characters emerge. The words create the being, then the being utters the words, as it were. Right up to the last night, I was still discovering things about Robert, his motivations, ways of moving, or the way in which words were intoned or stressed, or even the unsaid things, the absences. It was an absorbing process.

The worst part? That's harder to say. I grew frustrated at times at the (necessarily) repetitive nature of rehearsals, but they certainly paid off. I think what was difficult was diminishing the voice of my inner critic and just trusting myself to get on with the task in hand. So, difficult rather than worse. Emotionally, too, I associated the story with my own personal history, and there was no way that I could not face it - and my own faults and omissions. That was tough and often bleak - and sad. It was also needed.

What have I learned? Firstly, that there's always more to learn when it comes to performance, well, anything, really. And that in order to learn, it's better to have a bit of humility - and that is not a weakness at all. 
I also learned that I can act consistently (and, I hope, well), but that it requires having a team around you. I didn't know Emma or Pete (or Mathieu) before we started rehearsing, and I think we were initially a little edgy and uncertain round each other. As we rehearsed, however, we developed that trust we needed, and it raised the game on all our performances.
Talking of trust, I learned that I can and should trust myself much more in novel situations. This is harder to do because of the years of ingrained habit that go very much against this - but this is a subject for a different article.

In summary though, I have to say this was a massively positive and rewarding thing to do, and I feel privileged to have been part of the ensemble that created this.

So what does the future hold? I'm certainly intent on doing more acting. A few other members of the theatre have already approached me about auditioning for various roles, so that's encouraging. The question is whether to plunge headlong into a career I should perhaps have pursued a long, long time ago.

All photos by Aidan Moran.