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A CurtainUp London London Review

It's calm, bland and boring: all tension has evaporated. But this happens, working with a Pinter play. It suddenly goes. Until the actors are absolutely sure of their inner life and can play it passionately, their outer life, as expressed simply by what they say, can take over and appear insubstantial.
--- Sir Peter on rehearsals of Betrayal in 1978
Janie Dee as Emma and Hugo Speer as Robert
(Photo: Nobby Clarke)
It is not easy playing Pinter. Betrayal is one of his most natural plays, no monologues branching out into the surreal, a play about real people in real situations. Peter Hall's production for the Bath Festival which was originally paired with Noel Coward's Design For Living is now set in 2003.

Twenty five years after its London premiere, Betrayal failed to have anything except a shallow impact on me. The updating, the play regresses to the point where Jerry and Emma commence their extra-marital affair, seems to me to be a mistake. Tiny details have changed. How in cell phone using 2000 could two professionals comment on how wonderful it is to be in a flat without a phone? But more important than the tiny details is an acceptance that marriages break down and an openness in discussing how. What woman like Emma, who manages a successful art gallery would stay with a husband that knocks her about?

I like the basic premise. I find it clever taking an affair in its closing scene and playing back to the beginning but the real skill of Pinter is playing some of the scenes in 2000 in chronological order so that intricacy of deceit is revealed. The difference in Pinter's play is that there is a second betrayal, probably the one that interests men and Pinter more, the betrayal of the close friendship between the two men. With such overlapping lives and so many people in common, is it credible that no-one caught them?

So if the era doesn't make sense, what of the performances? I have great respect for Janie Dee's acting talent but I think she isn't a born player of Pinter. She is too warm, too human, too open, too nice. Instead of moments of agonised tension, she suddenly bursts into tears, almost a surprise, striking a false note. Hugo Speer, almost unrecognisable from his role as the well-endowed stripper from the movie The Full Monty seems to be in his first professional role onstage. Pinter is no place to start your stage career. Aden Gillett was ok but without a lover's passion. I couldn't believe in the closeness of the men's friendship. They seemed so unlike and neither of them seemed to be poets. Speer reminded of someone in the military as he barked out his challenges to play squash and the long misogynist speech about his hatred of women.

The set is a pile of furniture and children's toys, the baggage that families collect in a lifetime with some London street names. The idea is to convey the psychological baggage we carry with us in a physical sense. The fact that it makes the play look as if it is set in a garbage tip is incidental. Why not reduce the pile as we go back in time? The cast are dressed in monochrome, black, grey and boring at that.

Peter Hall seems not to have put his directorial stamp on this play. The impact this production of Betrayal has had on me is to stress how important it is to have actors who are instinctively Pinter naturals. Only then can we read what is being said between the lines. Perhaps if this production had transferred with the other half of its double bill Design For Living it might have been more satisfying than seventy five minutes that left many in the audience wanting more.

Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Peter Hall

Starring: Janie Dee
With: Hugo Speer, Aden Gillett, James Supervia
Designer: John Gunter
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: Seventy five minutes without an interval.
Box Office: 0870 890 1103
Booking to 31st January 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th October 2003 Performance at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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