Betrayal, one of Harold Pinter’s finest works, will open on Broadway September 5 after an extended run in London’s West End. Thanks to 4615 Theatre, a young professional company, you can see a noteworthy production of this modern classic right here in DC. Betrayal is presented in repertory with Lucy Prebble’s Enron; you can read my colleague John Stoltenberg’s rave review of Enron here.
Betrayal originally opened in London in 1978, immediately after the breakup of Pinter’s marriage to actress Vivien Merchant. At the time, he was involved with well-known biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, whom he later married. The play is based on an earlier 7-year affair between Pinter and journalist Joan Bakewell, which took place during his marriage to Merchant.
Bakewell, who was herself married during the affair, was initially shocked and hurt by the tell-all details in the script. Still, she recovered, writing a book, The Centre of the Bed, and her own play, Keeping in Touch, about the experience. Merchant, devastated by her divorce from her famous husband, became an alcoholic and died two years after their split, at the age of 53.
Initially criticized as un drame à clef about self-centered individuals, mired in privilege, Betrayal has since been recognized as one of Pinter’s most enduring creations. It is in (mostly) reverse chronological order, taking place from 1977-1968. The characters are not artists, but part of the vast industry that surrounds them. Emma (Caroline Dubberly) is married to Robert (Jared H. Graham), a publisher; her lover is his best friend Jerry (Matt Dewberry) an agent. At the outset, after the affair is over, we learn that Emma now runs a fashionable art gallery.
Betrayal is well-suited to the intimate space of the Dance Loft on 14th, and from first to last is beautifully played. Director Stevie Zimmerman has a deep understanding of the music of the script and her actors perform it with style. Dewberry’s Jerry is a bundle of emotions, very much in love with Emma throughout. The intensity of his passion continually threatens to get the best of him, and his biting wit fails to save him from falling into one trap after another.
Jared H. Graham as Robert is tightly in control most of the time, in vivid contrast to the demonstrative Jerry. He can explode in anger and admits to having hit Emma, a confession which has a much different effect today than it probably did in 1978. Some see a homoerotic element in the tension between the two men.
Dubberly is faced with a challenge; Emma, like many of Pinter’s women, is an enigmatic presence. She is the prize the two men are competing for; yet by the end, she seems to have tired of the whole unholy mess. If Emma is, as the script suggests, an abused wife, it is utterly understandable that she would fall into the waiting arms of Jerry.
But Dubberly’s Emma is confident, sees through the men’s games to some extent, and makes her own moves when she thinks it’s necessary. At other times the mask slips and you see the very real pain underneath.
The costumes (by Kiana Vincenty) are well-suited to the characters’ personalities. Emma’s are sophisticated but unpretentious. Jerry is a slightly rumpled, sweater-wearing intellectual. Robert is more of a polished businessman. The Scenic Design (by Kathryn Kawecki) and Lighting Design (by Jon Medley) work well. Sound Design, by Artistic Director Jordan Friend, is particularly lovely. The production also rejoices in an Intimacy/Fight Director: Jonathan Ezra Rubin.
In a 1995 speech at Sofia University in Bulgaria, where he was receiving an honorary doctorate, Pinter said:
“I’ve always been aware that my characters tend to use words not to express what they think or feel but to disguise what they think or feel, to mask their actual intentions, so that words are acting as a masquerade, a veil, a web, or used as weapons to undermine or to terrorise. But these modes of operation are hardly confined to characters in plays. In the world in which we live, words are as often employed to distort or to deceive or to manipulate as they are to convey actual and direct meaning. So that a substantial body of our language is essentially corrupt. It has become a language of lies. These lies in themselves can become so far-reaching, so pervasive that even the liar thinks he is telling the truth.”
In 4615 Theatre’s Summer of Scandal, lies are the currency of the realm as well as the legal tender of personal relationships. What could be more relevant?
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Betrayal plays through September 8, 2019, at 4615 Theatre Company performing at the Dance Loft on 14th, 4618 14th Street NW, Washington, DC, in repertory with Lucy Prebble’s Enron. For tickets, go online.