Review: ‘Betrayal’ at Soulpepper Theatre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Wow, wow and wow!

These were the three exclamations my guest and I interjected after a well-deserved curtain call of a brave opening night of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’.

In March I had attended Soulpepper’s production of ‘Little Menace: Pinter Plays’. Sadly, I noted that during my undergraduate years I never had an opportunity to study Pinter’s plays, so I’ve slowly been introduced to them in performances that have been wondrous, perplexing, and exhilarating, all using the varied nuances and meanings of language and dialogue.

This use of language and dialogue is once again of extreme importance to the success of ‘Betrayal’.  We’re asked as stated in the Programme Notes to pay attention to what’s not said. In her Artist’s Note, director Andrea Donaldson says of this production of ‘Betrayal’ it is a “living, breathing entity… that invites a vicarious participation, [and] living through the choices [of the characters], while exiting the theatre mostly unscathed, as with a dream.”

With Ms. Donaldson’s subtle direction, ‘Betrayal’ is beautifully performed through the varied nuances and meanings of language and dialogue accomplished by four solid actors.

‘Betrayal’ premiered in 1978 at London’s National Theatre. It is the story of deception involving four people: Robert (Jordan Pettle), Jerry (Ryan Hollyman) and Emma (Virgilia Griffith), Robert’s wife. Jerry is married to Judith, but we never see her. Robert and Jerry are best friends. Jerry and Emma end up in an adulterous affair over a seven-year period. What I found rather interesting about the structure of the script is the fact the play begins two years after the affair between Jerry and Emma ends, and the story moves backward in time to the conclusion of the play and the moment of the first betrayal of Jerry and Emma to Robert.

For me, this structure was genius. We’ve seen so many linear stories of marriages breaking up that it was refreshing dramatically and theatrically to watch the reversed order as I became rather engrossed in the various moments of this illicit and morally corrupt love affair.

Ken MacKenzie’s work in Set and Costume Design is marvellous to behold.  His set design made the Michael Young stage appear larger from my seat. Gorgeous wood panelling encompassed the set. The five hanging circular light fixtures just screamed 70s look to me along with circular table and two chairs along with the desk. The choices made in costumes took me back to my childhood and early teenage years. The slight costume changes by Messrs. Pettle and Hollyman did reveal a change in years; however, it was the varied costume changes by Ms. Griffith which are a strong indication that we are being transported back seven years. Ms. Griffith’s final costume change had that ‘Carol Brady’ look for me.

Ms. Griffith, Mr. Pettle and Mr. Hollyman offer especially strong performances while complementing each other’s work. The background notes state the production plays as both an emotional detective story and emotional thriller at times.  I couldn’t agree more, but I’d like to add something else.

What makes ‘Betrayal’ work for me is we get to see immediately how destructive an adulterous affair truly is from a moral perspective to all those involved. The conversation between Jerry and Emma at the top of the show in a restaurant, while humourous at times, was also perplexing how these two people have the audacity to meet after two years. I don’t want to spoil what transpires during this opening conversation, but it certainly creates after theatre discussion.

Pettle and Hollyman are strongly convincing and diametrically opposite in their relationship with Emma. As we go back years and not forward, it is important for the actors to reveal to us they are younger in the earlier scene.  During one of Emma and Jerry’s secret rendezvous, Mr. Hollyman comically jumps onto the chaise lounge like a young, ready stag ready for some action, but we know that he isn’t as young as he truly is.  I don’t want to spoil the end of the play, but Mr. Pettle’s entrance (while Ms. Griffith and Mr. Hollyman are talking intimately) was both striking and haunting for me as it leads to further questions about whether or not Robert was aware of the relationship going on between Emma and Jerry.

Ms. Griffith delivers a standout and knockout performance as Emma. She captured naturally and believably for me that we were going back in time to the moment that Emma and Jerry begin their initial adulterous act. Again, without spoiling the plot, there are moments where my heart did bleed for Emma when we see her relationship with Robert. And yet, these feelings are quashed in me when we see how she behaves during her affair where she knowingly knows she is hurting the man to whom she is supposedly committed and in love.

FINAL COMMENTS: There are no easy answers in this play as my guest and I were talking quite a bit on the train ride home later about behaviours of adults who are wronged and who have been wronged, and the moral implications involved.  I had no idea that Pinter was also involved in a passionate affair for seven years with Joan Bakewell.

Both my guest and I discussed how writers begin writing with what they know. It’s obvious Mr. Pinter had extensive experience with this action.

‘Betrayal’ is a theatrically thrilling at times as see events unfold. It runs to September 22, 2019 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Michael Young Theatre, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District.  For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca, www.youngcentre.ca or call 1-416-866-8666.

The production runs ninety minutes with no interval.

Photo of Virgilia Griffith and Ryan Hollyman by Dahlia Katz.