Lyrical lament on the joy and pain of love

Amanda Ryan and Mark Hesketh in York Theatre Royal's production of Betrayal. Picture: Anthony Robling
Amanda Ryan and Mark Hesketh in York Theatre Royal's production of Betrayal. Picture: Anthony Robling
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In one of his most personal works, Pinter created one of the great plays of the last century. Nick Ahad reports on a new production of Betrayal.

As we’re discussing the legacy of Harold Pinter, I pause while interviewing Juliet Forster and note that the playwright really was a genius.

“I know, he really is, isn’t he? In fact, I’ve written that in my notes for the programme,” says Forster, the associate director of York Theatre Royal.

A couple of days later, at York, I look in the programme and true to her word, Forster has not only declared Pinter’s genius in the programme, it is the first sentence in her notes: “Pinter is a genius. He just is,” she writes.

It’s a word bandied around all too easily, but it feels easy to attach to this playwright who appeared to have the ability to examine human beings with the detachment of an automaton, yet reveal the human soul like he was a great poet.

Even without The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker, even if his only contribution had been Betrayal, those qualities we would still attribute to him.

“It is an astonishingly good play,” says Forster, bringing Betrayal to the stage at York this month.

“To direct the piece has been absolutely stimulating, exciting, interesting, eternally intriguing.”

Betrayal is Pinter’s most personal work. It tells the story of Jerry, his best friend Robert and Emma, Robert’s wife with whom Jerry has a nine-year-affair. It is based on the affair Pinter had with TV presenter Joan Bakewell in the Sixties.

The affair lasted six years and Pinter felt – that word again – betrayed, when he found out that Michael Bakewell, Joan’s husband, had known about the affair for two years.

The genius of the piece is in a bold theatrical device which would have been astoundingly groundbreaking at its premiere in 1978. Time in Betrayal is malleable. While the play tells the story of an affair, it does so backwards and jumps through wormholes in time, using the future to shine a sometimes grotesque light on the past. It might not be quite so surprising now, but Pinter did this four decades ago.

“It’s such an amazing piece that you don’t really need to impose any interpretation on to it,” says Forster.

“You can just play the text. You do find yourself constantly making choices about what the truth of the text is – or at least the truth 
for that specific character – but you don’t need to impose any interpretation,” says Forster.

Given that this play is lauded as one of the greatest by one of the greatest writers of the last century, how does a director approach it?

Forster, who programmes the theatre at York alongside artistic director Damian Cruden, says the play was one she had on her ‘to do list’, but is it terrifying to go into a room with a play of such stature?

“It could be intimidating, but ultimately, you have to remember that it is just a text and you have to treat it like that. You have to approach it and bring your imagination to it and then it’s about working through the text and making the choices. The thing about this play is that it is so brilliantly written that at any point you can make any number of choices.

“The characters can play something in so many different ways because the play is so ambiguous – and yet, we see where the story is heading.”

It is fascinating to watch a car crash in reverse. What’s intriguing is that Pinter shows us his hand at the very beginning.

By showing us these two damaged souls at the end of their affair and then playing out their relationship in reverse, he has revealed how the magic trick is done, yet somehow, watching him perform the trick is still compelling.

“For me it is hugely a play about masks. It is such a perfectly structured piece of work that the characters are able to slowly reveal pieces of themselves and the audience learns more about them as they go along.”

Full of the characteristic Pinter Pauses, the play is also astounding in its sparsity. There isn’t a wasted line, breath or pause in the whole piece.

What this appears to achieve is to leave the audience to fill in the blanks between the words.

“One of the fascinating things I have found has been to listen to the audiences talk about what their opinion is of the relationships and people have totally different takes on the play,” says Forster.

“I think that diversity of opinion shows why it’s such a brilliant play – two people can watch this play and get entirely different things from it – it really is that open to interpretation.”