In his play Betrayal, two of Harold Pinter’s greatest loves, the pregnant pause and the theme of memory, feature prominently.

            A solid revival of this 1978 drama – particularly notable for the nuanced acting of Amanda Lisman – is currently being livestreamed by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre.

            Small-screen versions of theatre often provide less of a thrill than the in-person experience. Nonetheless, this show – staged at the Roxy Theatre with multiple cameras –  is worth seeking out. Directed by Brian Richmond, Betrayal isamong the more fully realized online productions I’ve so far seen during the pandemic.

            The Pinter Pause is famous enough to have become a cliche of 20th century theatre. Pinter provided explicit stage directions for these dialogue rest-stops (224 in The Homecoming; 140 in Betrayal).  They can be powerful, providing a passive yet potent emphasis on certain lines and situations. The trick is to not overdo them – something the Blue Bridge cast succeeded in during a preview performance this week.         

            In Betrayal the malleability and fallibility of memory is examined with virtuoso technical skill. The 75-minute play (no intermission)  examines the lives of three upper-middle-class professionals working in the arts.  Emma (Lisman) runs a gallery; her husband Robert (Tim Machin) works for a publishing house. His best friend Jerry (Anthony Santiago) is a literary agent.  The essential plot is conventional – Emma had a seven-year affair with Jerry that eventually fizzled. Robert found out, yet somehow their marriage survived, perhaps because the couple have children.

            Pinter’s conjurer’s trick is to present his play backwards chronologically. It begins with Emma and Jerry meeting in a bar after two years apart following their affair. There she admits she confessed their clandestine romance to Robert the previous night when they’d quarreled. Jerry is aghast – he was, after all, best man at their wedding. Subsequent scenes go back in time from 1977 to a fateful night in 1968 when Jerry drunkenly declared his love for Emma. It’s the only openly passionate sequence in a play that mostly holds its cards tightly to its chest.

            Emma, a failed romantic, is arguably the most complex character. She loves Jerry – and we see there are times when she imagined a new life with him, despite the potential personal cost. Yet Emma compromises her dream by continuing the affair on Jerry’s terms (they spent afternoons “living together” in the flat) while remaining in her marriage. This notion of compromise is another theme in Betrayal – Pinter portrays it as a tragedy of the human condition.

             In a fine and detailed performance Lisman navigated the paradoxes of Emma’s character, mining the ambiguity and ironic echoes within Pinter’s dialogue. Lisman is a good actor who’s impressed in previous Blue Bridge shows – and she doesn’t disappoint here.

            Jerry,  who loses interest in the affair as his ardor dims, is a simpler character. He lacks the emotional sophistication (and cynicism) of Emma and her husband. While good natured, at times he seems brutishly oblivious of  the feeling of others or the ramifications of his actions. Stiff at times, Santiago’s best scene was when he first revealed his love/lust for Emma in the 1968 scene, thus sowing the seeds of their affair.

            Machin’s performance as Robert was deliberately understated. It’s a fine balance – with Pinter any broadness ruins the play,  yet withholding too much robs the characters of life.  Machin’s approach mostly worked, although, like Santiago, there was a rigidness in his performance at times.

            He was particularly successful in bringing out Robert’s veiled hostility towards his wife and best friend. The lacerating schadenfreude humour embedded within these exchanges is trademark Pinter (we also see it in The Caretaker when Mick verbally attacks the tramp Davies). When an emotionally devastated Robert discovers a love note from Jerry to Emma, thus revealing the affair, the way he baits his wife makes us shiver in horrified pleasure: “What do you think of Jerry as a letter writer?” and “Was there any message for me in his letter… not even his love?”

            Richmond allows the script to shine by encouraging an appropriately restrained balance throughout. Fittingly, designer Teresa Pryzbylski has opted for a pleasing minimalist look – there’s little in the way of set or props except for chairs and tables. Her well-chosen projections add drama while avoiding distraction. Composer John Mills-Cockell has created an evocative original score ranging from jazz to classically-inspired strings with electronic flourishes.

            The final live-streamed performances of Betrayal are 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday.


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