Is there a fine line between love and infidelity? Where does bromance end and latent passion begin? Is fidelity an impossible virtue? These are questions that seem to fascinate Harold Pinter in his very personal and endlessly provocative 1978 drama Betrayal. Pinter’s own seven-year relationship with Joan Blakewell (wife of director Michael Blakewell) surely influenced his writing here, but a careful staging demonstrates the diversity of the betrayals on display. Gifted director Maria Aitken—of The Thirty Nine Steps and Educating Rita fame-has given Betrayal that kind of care to the Huntington Theatre Company’s main stage year-closer. The result is a taut (80 minutes in length) revival that is faithful to the disturbing insights of this modern classic.
Beginning in 1977 at a London pub two years after Emma and Jerry’s seven-year affair, Betrayal brilliantly chronicles their relationship in reverse. Scene by scene, the play gradually reaches the affair’s beginning in 1968 at Emma and husband Robert’s home. In doing so, Pinter has more to say about the loss of passion and love in both Emma and Robert’s marriage and Emma and Robert’s best friend Jerry’s relationship that a conventional chronological structure would have allowed. At the same time, the dramatist’s subtlety and telling exchanges about feeling, love and passion should shake up theatergoers sensibilities in Aitken’s powerfully disturbing conception.
With the help of camera lens-like entrances and exits to and from scenes in Philip S. Rosenberg’s sublime lighting, Aitken unsparingly focuses on the ups and downs of Robert, Emma and Jerry’s interactions and relationships. While forms of the word ‘betrayal’ actual appear at times in the play, theatergoers will understand that Pinter’s dialogue suggests a considerable range of infidelities. Besides the obvious seven-year betrayal of Robert by Emma and Jerry, there is an ostensible unseen betrayal of Emma by Robert with other women and Jerry’s clear betrayal of his own unseen wife. For her part, Emma eventual seems to be ready for a possible relationship with an unseen writer that Robert publishes and Jerry represents as an agent.
At one point, Robert’s loneliness suggests that the ‘other women’ may be a cover for an unspoken love for Jerry. Some theatergoers may dispute this view, yet Robert startlingly remarks at one point that he should have had an affair with Jerry. Adding to the possibility of Robert’s sexual attraction to his best friend is Robert’s ongoing wish to play squash with Jerry and a vivid description of a male ritual including squash and showering that does not include women. The image of playing squash may be a metaphor for Robert’s sublimated love for Jerry.
Pinter’s ultimately disquieting if thoughtful reflections on love and unfaithful are richly served by Aitken’s strong cast and skillful design team. Mark H. Dodd, tall and lanky, has the right gracefulness as elusive Robert. He captures Robert’s curious vulnerability as well as his cockiness. Alan Cox as Jerry matches Dodd’s rapid fire returns in their vocal volleys about books and life. Cox is properly rhapsodic about Emma at the start of their affair. Best is Gretchen Egolf as evolving Emma-both as the conservatively dressed and jaded wife of 1977-credit Nancy Brennan’s strong costume design- and the reckless affair-embracing Emma of 1968. Egolf catches both the pathos and the passion of one of Pinter’s finest female characters.
Scenic designer Allen Moyer brings Pinteresque subtlety to the changes in Emma and Jerry’s Wessex flat.
A first-class revival provokes even as it entertains. So it goes with Aitken’s passionately fresh revival of Betrayal.