SEVEN months ago, en route to Bath Theatre Royal to review Band of Gold and New Old Friends, we were telephoned with the news that the theatre had closed until further notice following government instructions. What an exciting relief to be back, albeit masked and distanced, in the beautiful theatre for the first of three small-scale productions of great plays leading up to Christmas.
Harold Pinter’s largely autobiographical Betrayal opens the “Welcome Back” season. Directed by Jonathan Church, this 1978 play looks back on the playwright’s now famous lengthy affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell, who was at the time dubbed “the thinking man’s crumpet.” It’s cruel to everyone, funny, and much more accessible than many of Pinter’s plays, and it is performed backwards, with the end of the affair opening the action.
Requiring only four actors, it’s a perfect piece for these Covid-19 days. Bath Theatre Royal, whose director Danny Moar has kept admirably quiet while many of his fellow directors have bemoaned their apparently exclusive and unique fates, must be hoping that this portable and bubbled production will have a life after its three week season, easily fitting into other socially-distanced and long-empty theatres.
Betrayal is about Gerry and Robert and their friendship of many years. Gerry is a literary agent and Cambridge graduate, while Robert, from Oxford, is a publisher. Robert’s wife, Emma, is also Gerry’s mistress. Gerry is married to a doctor, Judith.Their relationships are littered with little betrayals and the audience, watching the story furl back up, is taken in to the complexities of truth, loyalty and deception. For some reason I was reminded of Yasmina Reza’s ART in these justifications and casual flaying of male friendships and their total disregard for the feelings of the women in their lives. Nothing new there, then.
The Bath cast, Edward Bennett, Nancy Carroll and Joseph Millson, with Bristol actor Chris Bianchi, nail Pinter’s characters with their bragging entitlement, neuroses and extravagantly selfish lies. When the truth comes out, it’s shocking. This brilliantly spare production makes for a timeless story set in a recognisable period, and if you can just forget the failed actor David Baron who became the garlanded and idolised Harold Pinter, and how he shafted his former lover, you might, watching Bennett’s performance, find just a glimmer of understanding. The charismatic and versatile Millson brings poetic conflict to Robert.
Joan Bakewell was apparently unhappy with her (surely deeply unfair) characterisation as a brittle and rather shallow woman – Nancy Carroll certainly captures Pinter’s harsh image, but there is room in her performance for sympathy (at least from female members of the audience).
In these days of Fake News, bombast and uber-egocentricity, Betrayal is a play to make you think, and I’ve never seen it more compellingly done than it is in Bath, where it is on stage until Saturday 31st October.