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?

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