The poster chosen to advertise the Crucible’s production of Betrayal, where leading man Jerry flings ‘close friend’ Robert’s child high up into the air and catches her in his arms as everyone around them laughs, is a twisted metaphor for this sardonic and loveless tale.
Because Jerry – married with children himself – has betrayed Robert, played by a frosty Colin Tierney, by having a seven year affair with his wife, Emma. And Robert, too, has conducted his fair share of betrayal; the audience discovers in the opening scene that Emma’s ‘betrayed’ husband has cultivated his own string of infidelities.
The achronological Harold Pinter tale leads us from the decayed and ghostly remnants of Jerry and Emma’s affair, right through to the dazzling moment of expectation and excitement when Jerry first drunkenly bursts into Emma’s bedroom to declare his love.
Considering the play is based on Pinter’s own extramarital affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell, you would expect some of it to speak from the inner chambers of Pinter’s heart.
Instead, every fraught and stilted line feels like a rejection – there is a disparity and impersonality between not only the characters, but the audience themselves.
Every line seeps with insincerity. Ruth Gemmell’s Emma is shrill and steely and her unquestionable glamour is tarnished by a sense of heartlessness and indifference.
Her lack of chemistry with John Simm’s Jerry makes even the most passionate scene seem bereft. The sparse set of their Kilburn flat, rented purposefully for clandestine trysts, exudes emptiness and listlessness. Even the gift Emma buys Jerry from a trip to Venice with her husband is a plain white tablecloth – blank, banal and meaningless.
The end of the reverse plot – the beginning of Emma and Jerry’s affair in 1968 – builds the audience up to a distorted crescendo after we see them awkwardly meet in a pub in the opening scene after two years apart, by which time Emma is already having an affair with another man.
But audience expectations are crushed. As Jerry declares his longing for his friend’s wife, instead of sounding like a devastatingly romantic proposition, his drunken ramblings resemble the pleas of a lovesick school boy begging for a kiss at the back of the school yard sheds. There is no crescendo, because you fail to care about any of the characters.
The sleek design of the glass stage floor with torn papers strewn beneath the actor’s feet, and the clear bare table and chair sets designed by Colin Richmond and inspired by David Hockney’s paintings, are a highlight of the show.
But the audience is left feeling that, despite Nick Bagnall’s impassioned direction, there is no yearning, no desperation, no pain, no guilt. There is only a startling and uneasy individualism which may just have been Pinter’s intention all along.
The play’s poster metaphor serves as the only element of trust in a play saturated by betrayal.
But the stale taste it leaves in the mouth fails to linger, making everyone, even the audience themselves, feel similarly betrayed.