Friends and Lovers
Backwards is Betrayal Pinter's Harold. The play unfolds in reverse chronology to tell the story of how Jerry and Emma became no longer lovers, and Jerry and Robert, Emma's husband, became no longer friends. Through restaurant lunches, Venetian holidays and romantic trysts, we trudge backwards in time, watching the jaded characters rediscover the hope and youthfulness that each of them sold by betraying the others. Betrayal is a wonderful, human play despite its unusual structure. It shows us the price of choices we make without even realising we've made them, and asks us if we'd choose the same again, had we foreknowledge. It is the kind of play that will never age because it shows us how people really are and people never really change. And it's great to see it in Singapore.
Indian film star Shabana Azmi gave a yielding, liquid performance as Emma. In her exchanges with Peter Friedman, playing her lover, Jerry, she had a rippling, gently sparkling quality - a pliancy that could harden into ice when required. One could see straight away why Jerry was attracted to her and one could also see hints of why their relationship didn't work out. She also proved a perfect counterpoint to Simon Jones, whose performance as her husband, Robert, was like sculpted stone to her water.
But when Azmi was not actively engaged in conversation - on the couple of occasions when she was supposed to remain silent and react to one of the other characters' monologues - she became murky and stagnant. It was almost as if she had switched off her performance and was waiting for the camera to be trained on her again.
She also had less than combustible chemistry with Friedman, and while this worked perfectly well for the earlier scenes (which, of course, occur chronologically later, after the lovers' affair has cooled), it became increasingly problematic as the play progressed and the lovers were supposed to be overwhelmed with passion.
Normally it's not really possible to place the blame for failed chemistry on either partner - it's just something some couples have and some don't - but here it rather seemed that Azmi was keeping a certain aloof distance from Friedman, and, try as he might, he could not close the gap. Certainly, in the final scene, he made an extremely commendable stab at an extended monologue where Jerry, drunk on love and liquor, professes his love to Emma in whirlwind of words. But on the other hand, determined as Friedman was to close the gap between them, his protestations of love seemed to be born of his intellect rather than passion. Instead of the unthinking ardency one would expect of the last scene, Friedman gave the impression of a man bewildered by love - a man who is trying to piece together his splintered mind and make sense of his feelings. On its own terms, this was an effective, touching interpretation, but it failed to add the visceral component the couple's relationship needed. So perhaps Azmi is not solely to blame: perhaps Friedman didn't have the fire to make her steam.
The chemistry between the men was better. (If anything, the men's chemistry is more important than the lovers', because it makes us feel the weight of Jerry's betrayal of Robert by stealing his wife.) Again, Friedman seemed to be working harder to create the relationship. He seemed tickled by Robert's deliberately abstruse jokes and appeared genuinely interested in him as a person. But he was also necessarily somewhat wary - after all, Jerry knows from the outset that he is betraying Robert, whereas Robert only finds out later.
Meanwhile, Jones's Robert was impenetrable and urbane - the kind of stiff-upper-lip Englishman who completes the Times crossword in 20 minutes and makes little puns about the clues as he does so. His performance explained how he could keep secret the knowledge of Jerry and Emma's affair for so long, all the while maintaining a veneer of cordiality... But of course, veneers are no fun unless they break occasionally.
The break came three quarters of the way through the play but chronologically near its start, when Robert, having just found out about Jerry's affair with his wife, meets Jerry for lunch. As we have come to expect, they talk about anything other than the matter at hand, but the betrayal is still new to Robert at this point and its pain is still fresh. He doesn't succumb to it - he would never - but Jones shows us how much it costs him to suppress his anger, sublimating it into strained drollery and drowning it in Italian wine.
In this lunch scene, Jones also avoided the most significant flaw his performance contained when he stopped caring about the audience's reaction. Pinter has a way with telling one-liners that make the audience laugh, and the temptation for an actor is to sit on them a little too hard, making sure that even the slow old dears in the back row get the joke. This was a temptation to which Jones regularly succumbed, and though this suited his character's dry humour, it sacrificed the everyday rhythm of Pinter's dialogue, which is so important to his plays because it makes them real; and it distanced him from his co-actors, who were striving to be part of that everyday reality. In the drunk scene, however, Jones lived for the inebriated instant, disregarding the timing of his punchlines but hitting them all perfectly anyway. He was quite the best drunk I have ever seen.
The scene was perfectly pitched on Friedman's part too - he suspects Robert knows about him and Emma but he can't be sure, and his guarded performance was shaded so that we could see clearly his changes of mood - from being almost sure Robert knows about the affair to being practically convinced he doesn't.
Wang Meiyin's direction was as careful as Friedman's performance. In Betrayal, none of the characters ever say what they mean until the very end, and yet Pinter writes their evasive, seemingly non-committal lines with rich subtexts that beg for the actors to bring them out into the open: to bite off one line curtly, for example, and then to offer the next as an apology. This can prove too much for some directors, who attempt to cram as many emotions as possible into any given page of dialogue. Thankfully, Wang is not among them. She chose her emotional peaks and troughs carefully, and left enough blank space between them to give the play the elegiac feel, the sense of loss that it needed (though this sense of loss would have been heightened if Wang had insisted more strenuously that her cast act younger as the play progressed).
She was not helped, however, by the blankness of her set. I am referring specifically to the walls, which were painted white. This may sound like a petty thing to say, but Betrayal should not have white walls: to suit its themes it needs corners to hide in and, occasionally, high contrast lighting - both impossible in the sterile glare of white emulsion. The opening scene is set in a pub, for crying out loud, and the table and barstools just looked ridiculous stranded in the corner of a brightly lit stage. I may be wrong, but I don't think Wang and production designer Philip Engleheart chose white because they thought it would be thematically effective; I think they chose it so they could have a scrim on the back wall of the set. This scrim wall would appear opaque and white when lit from the front (meaning that the rest of the set had to be white to match it) and would appear transparent when lit from behind, revealing whatever lay behind it. Wang saved this transparency effect until the end of the play when all the actors had left the stage, and then she let us see through the back wall a mountain of furniture from all the scenes in the play, all piled up under eerie green lights. It was a neat effect, showing the audience in physical form the wastage and debris the characters had caused / would cause with their betrayals, and it was a great tableau on which to end the play. But it wasn't neat enough to justify having white walls all the way through.
Still, when it comes down to critics complaining about the colour of the walls, you know the play must have been pretty good. And indeed, I am pleased to report a coolly proficient, sensitive production of a classic play.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /