Up pops another Betrayal

Betrayal, Comedy Theatre London, 12 August 2011

There were several reasons for seeing this play a second time, not least the excellent cast and in particular the luminous presence of Kristin Scott Thomas as Emma.

A second look can often bring out subtle details in a production that were missed or forgotten. But the overall quality of this production made it a landmark in the play’s performance history and therefore worth seeing in its own right.

On this second view I was struck by just how often Emma’s husband Robert played by Ben Miles stroked and groomed his wife’s hair and body. It brought home the extent to which he was infatuated with her, but also an underlying fear of losing her, as if he had constantly to reinforce his relationship with her by making minor physical contact.

There is something in the nature of the play Betrayal itself that rewards repeated viewing. The play is carefully crafted and its dramatic payload requires focus and concentration to feel its full impact.

Minor elements suddenly take on new meaning when seen in the light of events later in the play. For this reason, viewing the play involves of a complex process of continuous reassessment. Because someone fresh to the play can have no idea of what will ultimately turn out to be significant it is perfectly possible to see the play once and not appreciate its full subtleties.

This is fundamentally different to the kind of additional wisdom gained from rewatching the classics, such as Shakespeare, because it is a product of the structure of the drama.

We are not watching Lear and suddenly seeing a new psychological insight which has remained latent in the text and has been brought out by a particular actor’s performance.

This is more like suddenly discovering a missing piece from a self-assembly unit and finding the place where it fits.

The missing piece of the play’s puzzle that appeared this time was Jerry’s discovery that Emma had lied to him about events in Venice. This was one of the multiple betrayals couched within the intricacies of the work.

In scene five, a pivotal scene set in Venice, Emma confessed to her husband about her affair with Jerry. Immediately afterwards in scene six, Emma met up with Jerry in their nest. When questioned about the planned trip to Torcello, she said that they did not go because the speedboats were on strike. Jerry accepts this story.

However, in the subsequent scene he hears from Emma’s husband Robert that he had gone to Torcello by speedboat. Jerry was surprised and commented “Ah. I thought” but when asked what he meant, he followed up his note of doubt by saying that he thought that the trip to the island was by gondola.

This was excellent backtracking and prevented him from revealing that he had already discussed the events of this holiday with Emma. But Emma had told Jerry that gondolas were not used to reach the island, so Jerry is in turn lying to Robert.

This means that Emma’s very significant deception of her lover, the first time that a crack appears in their relationship is something that can only be seen by re-examining a rather bland statement about Venetian public transport in the light of a slightly different statement by another character in the following scene.

Even the fact that Jerry notices that Emma has not told him the truth can remain hidden because of the clever way that he disguises his recognition behind some waffle about thinking that Torcello was reached by gondola and not by speedboat.

It is perfectly possible to watch the restaurant scene and not notice the significance of Jerry’s comments, taking them at face value, much as Robert does, and pass over them completely.

Yet this web of detail contains within it the first blow that begins to fragment the fragile extra-marital affair at the heart of the play.

The only problem with plays like Betrayal, which, like Cleopatra, make hungry where most they satisfy, is the long interval between significant productions. Whereas Lears and Hamlets seem to come along in packs like buses, we have to wait years for a modern classic such as Betrayal to be revived.

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