Betrayal, widely regarded as Harold Pinter’s most intimate and personal play, centres on three key characters: Emma (Ruth Gemmell), her husband Robert (Colin Tierney) and Jerry (John Simm), Robert’s best friend and Emma’s lover. We see key incidents in their relationships over a nine-year period, and the scenes mostly (but not entirely) move backwards through the characters’ lives as we unravel more about the affair between Emma and Jerry and explore the nature of ‘betrayal.’
It is the relationships between the characters, their dialogue and their silences and omissions -just as important as the dialogue, if not more so – which are the heart of the play, and it is here where the audience need to be won - and are. Simm, Tierney and Gemmell have strong chemistry on-stage (Simm and Tierney are reunited on the Crucible stage following 2010’s Hamlet), and Thomas Tinker has a scene-stealing cameo as an Italian waiter. Tierney is particularly good at portraying Robert's seeming 'niceness' and then revealing the more sinister undercurrent to his character.
However, whilst the performances were strong and drew the audience in to the characters’ lives, I couldn’t help wondering whether the intimacy of the Studio theatre (the Crucible’s second stage) would have been more of a natural home for a piece so intense and involving. This was particularly the case in the opening scene, where Simm and Gemmell spend the whole time sitting at a small table upstage – which felt somewhat distant and static on the larger stage - although this did serve to emphasise the distance between the characters in that scene.
Once the play progressed, the stage was used more effectively, with the few pieces of furniture and props being positioned at different places (the spaces around and between being a key part of this play's themes) and the actors moving more. The set design was, as is typical for the Crucible, creative and dynamic, with the stage comprised of a revolving glass floor, under which lay old books, papers and other detritus, whilst above only a small number of props and furnishings were needed to set each scene. The backdrop was plain black with just the dates and locations projected onto the wall at the start of each scene, whilst the costumes were very seventies – every shade of Brown under the sun!
Designer Colin Richmond took inspiration from David Hockney’s Still Life on a Glass Table, and the glass floor as table serves as an interesting metaphor for the life playing out on the glass table - the metaphor further enhanced by frequent moments of stillness throughout. The stage revolved during each scene change, and for the duration of one of the scenes, in a restaurant – effective in terms of allowing movement whilst the actors were static, but it did leave this travel-sickness prone reviewer feeling very queasy!
The play runs for around ninety minutes with no interval, which serves to heighten the intensity of the piece. Despite the problems of using a larger space, the actors and the sparse set do enable the audience to feel involved in the lives of the characters and director Nick Bagnall manages to bring out the wit, depth and sadness of Pinter’s dialogue in a way that reminds us his work is as fresh as ever, over thirty years since it was first written.
Betrayal is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 9 June.