The art of falling apart

Betrayal, Comedy Theatre London, 22 June 2011

Betrayal told the story of the love triangle between Emma (Kristin Scott Thomas), her husband Robert (Ben Miles) and his best friend Jerry (Douglas Henshall).

Tales of marital infidelity are ten a penny. But Pinter’s play added an extra dimension to the illicit nooky narrative by recounting events in reverse chronological order.

The piece began in the aftermath of the split between the married couple at the centre of the action and spiralled back in time through a period of ten years to the start of the affair.

This made for a tense, gripping experience as the play progressed. And we were sometimes wrong-footed.

Emma told her lover Jerry that Robert had found out about the affair the previous evening. When Jerry visited Robert to broach the subject, the wronged husband appeared at first to be glaring at him.

However, Robert announced that he had known about his wife’s adultery for years, which meant that what seemed initially to be freshly stoked fury had to be reinterpreted as some other state of mind.

Our awareness that Robert had known about the affair between Emma and Jerry for several years made the subsequent scenes taking place further back in time deliciously ironic. The audience could relish the undercurrent of aggression in Robert’s treatment of Jerry, and Jerry’s complete failure to recognise it.

As deceit and betrayal led to reticence, the famous Pinter pauses went beyond mere stylistic quirk to portray with extreme realism how on occasion a refusal to speak says more than words ever can.

With so much of the dialogue consisting of layers of deception, the silences were some of the only moments in the drama when the characters were being truly honest with each other.

But when they did speak, the excellent cast made the most of the delectable writing. Robert’s reaction to Emma admitting to her affair for instance:

Emma

We’re lovers.

Robert

Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something like that, something along those lines.

Robert’s pithy summation of the insouciance he detected among the residents of their holiday destination “Venetian je m’en foutisme” applied a French term to an Italian attitude to create a memorable phrase.

The reverse ordering of events caused seemingly unimportant details mentioned in passing to take on new significance as the play went further back in time.

Watching the play involved taking in new information and simultaneously reinterpreting initial impressions of the previously viewed chronological future of the story.

As the lovers abandoned their love nest in Kilburn, Emma chose not to take the tablecloth she had bought in Venice.

In the next scene we saw how Robert discovered the truth about his wife’s affair while they were on holiday in Venice. Abandoning that souvenir of the city began to look like Emma disposing of a reminder of troubled times.

“Well, I would remember that” was Jerry’s cryptic comment after mentioning that Emma’s son Ned was five years old. Precisely why Ned’s age was so firmly imprinted in Jerry’s mind was revealed later.

Emma had become pregnant with Ned during their affair. As Jerry had been in the US at the time, she knew the child to be Robert’s. Ned’s age was therefore not a random fact Jerry had recollected: it related to a significant event in his own life, the year in which his lover told him of her pregnancy by her husband.

When we reached the end of the performance, at the moment when Jerry first drunkenly made advances to Emma at a party in 1968, we saw them hold hands for the first time.

This prompted recollections of the solitary reunion at the start of the play with Emma’s odd question to Jerry: “Ever think of me?”

In the context of the overall story, it was possible to reinterpret this meeting between the divorcing Emma and her former lover Jerry as an attempt to reignite the affair.

The structure of the play displayed a neat symmetry in that both the first and last scenes of the play depicted the couple coming together: the first (chronologically last) time with Emma taking the initiative and the last (chronologically first) time with Jerry making the moves.

Kristin Scott Thomas radiated throughout. Her stage presence was classy but fragile, like a bone china tea cup. This was a celebrity casting that delivered real substance.

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