THE Autumn season at Salisbury Playhouse starts with Jo Newman’s production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which still has the aura of a very modern play although it was first seen in 1978.
It has generated acres of words from the (predominantly male) critics and academics, and great public interest when Joan Bakewell, whose affair with the playwright is seen as the catalyst for the story, weighed in on her side.
Emma is married to Robert, but having an affair with Jerry, who is Robert’s best friend. The debate seems to centre on WHICH betrayal is the most important – the spouses enduring the adulterous affairs or the male friendship.
I could offer another suggestion. There is ongoing criticism of the lack of good parts for women both on stage and in film. Mr Pinter, whose own acting career started at Bournemouth Palace Court Theatre when he was known as David Baron, has created a thundering role for an actress in Emma – but the character is ultimately entirely irrelevant in the story.
Betrayal famously moves backwards from a time two years after the cessation of Jerry and Emma’s affair to the time nine years earlier when it began. The Salisbury production is designed by Hannah Wolfe as a flexible single set in which beds and tables appear and disappear, and we are all caught in the blinding light of realisation.
Pinter gave his name to a style of stage writing that created menace by long pauses and staccato repeated phrases, and that is how Betrayal starts. Apparently he suggested to the actors in the original production that they didn’t do those Pinteresque pauses.
The debate has continued over almost 40 years as to whether Betrayal is autobiographical, and if so, to what extent. Pinter was married to Vivien Merchant during his long affair with Joan Bakewell, but had left her and begun an affair with Lady Antonia Fraser (then wife of politician Sir Hugh) before the play was written.
At Salisbury, Kirsty Besterman returns to play Emma, with Robert Mountford as the vain, arrogant and blindly selfish Jerry and Robert Hands as the complex and sometimes brutal Robert.
Betrayal is a very clever play, and it’s intensely performed by the Salisbury cast. The audience seemed to be longing for laughs, even giggling as an adulterous bed vanished through the back wall.
It continues to 23rd September.