Betrayal by Harold Pinter. At Ensemble Theatre Company, Friday, September 29.
Reviewed by Bojana Hill
Betrayal is an elusive play that raises many profound questions, most of which are left unanswered. The work explores the nature of betrayal and its unintended consequences. Based in part on Pinter’s own experience, this triangular love story is neither maudlin nor judgmental. Instead, the truth of the characters’ hidden lives is gradually exposed, like a mask being carefully removed. Betrayal suggests that we may not know our intimate friends and lovers, and that we may never be certain whether they know us better than we wish.
The play opens with a screen image of a blossomed rose whose petals slowly close back to a bud. This is a metaphor for Emma and Jerry’s waning love affair, but it also indicates the reverse order of the plot. The first of the nine vignette-like scenes is set in the present. Emma and Jerry, whose relationship ended two years earlier, are tense and anxious. As if banished from paradise, they appear heavy with remorse. Their love has withered and gone.
The subsequent scenes proceed backward in time, each revealing a moment in the life of two seemingly happy, ordinary families. Jerry and Robert have been the closest of friends since college. Now married with children, they are successful — a talented literary agent and a prominent publisher. The underlying discontent here is subtle; when they talk about poetry, their tone is wistful. This may be why Jerry falls passionately in love with Emma. Nowhere in the play is he more alive than when he declares his love for Emma, who is ravishing in her scarlet dress: “You dazzle me, you are so beautiful. I love you!” This last scene in the play is filled with innocence, but only if one does not know how it will end. One cannot help but wonder if the lovers would choose to relive their past knowing the pain it will cause.
Ann Noble’s performance as Emma is especially poignant in the Venetian scene. Her sensuality is magnetic, its power shifting between husband and lover. Geoffrey Lower as the gregarious Jerry and Hayden Adams as the stoical Robert complement each other well. Theirs is a perfect union of heart and mind, suggesting that Emma needed both to be fulfilled. The actors manage to appear more youthful as the play transports them further into the past. J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations punctuate each scene beautifully, and Tal Sanders’s imaginative stage design invites us to reflect: Have we neglected our own truths as we have collected objects? Do we betray others because we have betrayed ourselves, first and foremost?