Stage Door Review 2019


Friday, September 6, 2019


by Harold Pinter, directed by Andrea Donaldson

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

September 4-25, 2019

Emma: “Do you ever think you’d like to change your life?”

Soulpepper staged a powerful production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in 2000. Director Daniel Brooks got to heart of the play and the cast filled every line with the tension and menace for which Pinter’s dialogue is so renowned. Soulpepper’s present production, in contrast, appears superficial and aimless. Director Andrea Donaldson has no clear objective and menace is almost totally lacking from the dialogue. Brooks’s production ended with the force of tragedy. When Donaldson’s production ends, the play seems to have been about nothing more than exposé of the lives of three betrayers.

For those unfamiliar with the play, my backgrounder from 2000 is still valid: “The plot of Betrayal follows the affair between Emma and Jerry and the way in which Emma’s husband Robert, who is also Jerry’s best friend, comes to know about it. We first meet Jerry and Emma in a pub in 1977, two years affair their affair has ended, where Emma tells Jerry not only that her marriage with Robert has broken up but that Robert had known about their affair for four years. After a subsequent scene between Jerry and Robert, the scenes move backward in time until we reach a hotel room in Venice in 1973 – literally the central scene of nine – when Robert discovers his wife’s affair with Jerry. We see the repercussions in two further scenes, before moving backwards twice more to 1968 when Robert first declares his love for Emma. The beginning of the play is thus the end of things for the characters, confirming the end of the affair and the marriage, while the end of the play shows us the beginning of the action, Jerry’s declaration of love to Emma, that sets this destruction in motion. 

“In a play where the question ‘When did you know?’ is so important and frequent, Pinter uses this non-chronological scheme to put the audience in the same predicament as his characters. We are forced to piece together the sequence of events just as they do. Thanks to the clear markers Pinter puts in the play – a tablecloth brought back from Venice or the age of Emma’s son Ned – an attentive audience can follow the action backwards and note the three times when it moves forwards.... It is, however, built into the play that we should momentarily lose our bearings with each new scene”.

Ken MacKenzie’s untidy design for Donaldson is quite unlike the minimalism of John Thompson for Brooks or Soutra Gilmour’s for the current West End/Broadway production for Jamie Lloyd. MacKenzie has recreated a model of a Danish Modern room with is wooden ribbing on the walls and its array of Danish Modern furniture – chairs, sofas, tables, lamps – more than the minimal amount actually needed for the performance. In contrast to the sleek lines of Danish Modern, MacKenzie has covered the floor in overlapping oriental carpets. 

It’s hard to interpret what MacKenzie’s design is supposed to mean. It presents a contrast between the modern and the Victorian, but that’s hardly à propos to a play where the three main characters all have had extramarital affairs. The overlapping carpets may suggest the multiple secrets that the three main characters hide from each other, but Danish Modern furniture is an odd choice since, except for the final scene, the play is set very precisely in the 1970s when Danish Modern had already gone out of style. A minimalist or non-naturalistic design universalizes the action. MacKenzie’s design makes the action specific but to the wrong period.

Donaldson makes a few gestures towards metatheacricality. After one scene Emma goes over to a built-in makeup table and starts to change her wig. In another the Waiter seems to control the lighting. Yet, two such incidents are not enough bring out one of the play’s themes that all people are acting all of the time. 

Richard Feren, who did the sound design for the 2000 production, does so again for Donaldson but she has asked him to create pointless effects. The crowd noise he chooses for the initial scene in a pub is so loud one can hardly hear the actors. And do we really need to hear the sound of a jet when Robert and Emma go to Venice and again when they return? How dull does Donaldson think we are? Feren’s music for the scene changes is portentous to the point of melodrama and only emphasizes how little menace the actors themselves have generated through dialogue.

In 2000 Brooks had the actors forego the use of British accents as was then Soulpepper’s policy in performing non-Canadian plays in English. Donaldson enforces British accents but with uneven success. Jordan Pettle as Robert and Virgilia Griffith as Emma take on easy mid-Atlantic accents that sound natural and unforced. Ryan Hollyman, however, seems to try so hard at reproducing RP that everything he says sounds forced and artificial. 

Hollyman, who has previously given only praiseworthy performances, here comes off as artificial not only in accent but as pretentious and so reserved in his behaviour that it is impossible to understand how Emma could be attracted to him. Hollyman does succeed as well as Griffith and far better than Pettle in using his body language to show how his character becomes slightly younger with each scene. 

Pettle, who has often has the problem of speaking his lines too quickly, here slows down admirably which is an absolute necessity in Pinter to allow the aggressive subtext of seemingly innocuous words to sink in. As the action progresses Pettle's line delivery does speed up and begins to lose its ability to convey subtext. In the crucial Scene 5 in Venice, Pettle repeats Robert’s question to Emma, “Do you want to visit Torcello?” It ought to be spoken with a slightly different inference and slightly more threatening tone each time, but Pettle cannot achieve this without shouting. 

The finest performance comes from Griffith. She retains a natural but enigmatic poise from beginning to end and speaks every line as if she were playing a game – exactly what Pettle and Hollyman should be doing to bring out the themes of game-playing and one-upmanship imbedded in the text. Griffith is also far more successful than her male counterparts in subtly conveying subtext. She shows from her manner and tone that she is unhappy, afraid or disdainful long before she admits it aloud. She even lends apparently meaningless remarks like “Oh really?” so many implications that we don’t have time to analyze them. If only Pettle and Hollyman had mastered the text and subtext as well as Griffith, the action might have acquired the increasing force it had in 2000.

There is a fourth character, the Italian Waiter, who, as played by Paolo Santalucia, generates more menace from his single scene than do the other male cast-members in the entire play.

Donaldson’s approach is superficial because she seems to think the play solely concerns individuals betraying other individuals. Betrayal may be the subject matter of the play, but any director must address Pinter’s unusual form as well. Donaldson occasionally overlaps scenes which only confuses matters because they momentarily appear to go forwards and backwards simultaneously.

What Brooks captured but Donaldson misses is that Betrayal is really about the paradox of time. Why else would he order the scenes mostly in reverse chronological order? The paradox is that when we look ahead, time seems to provide multiple possibilities and choices. Seen looking backwards, the past is fixed and the choices have been made. The ancient question is whether our actions have been predetermined or not. Viewed this way Jerry feels his fervent declaration of love that comes at the very end of the play is a spontaneous break from convention. But, since we have already seen the aftereffects of this declaration, we know that Jerry and Emma’s affair has only imprisoned them in seven years of deception that has had negative consequences for all those around them. 

Unlike Little Menace, Thomas Moschopoulos’ collection of ten short Pinter plays for Soulpepper earlier this year, Donaldson’s Betrayal does not provide a good introduction to Pinter. For a good production of Betrayal all three actors must be playing at the level Virgilia Griffith achieves and the director must make us understand the rationale and implications of the play’s structure.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Virgilia Griffith as Emma and Ryan Hollyman as Jerry; Jordan Pettle as Robert, Ryan Hollyman as Jerry and Virgilia Griffith as Emma; Jordan Pettle as Robert and Virgilia Griffith as Emma; Ryan Hollyman as Jerry and Virgilia Griffith as Emma. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

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