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LONDON A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in one act by Harold Pinter. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Sets and costumes, Es Devlin; lighting, Rick Fisher; music, Roger Eno; sound, Paul Groothuis; video designer, Chris Laing. Opened, reviewed Nov. 24, 1998. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.
Jerry      Douglas Hodge
Emma       Imogen Stubbs
Robert     Anthony Calf
Waiter     Arturo Venegas

A curious betrayal of an aesthetic kind defines Trevor Nunn's National Theater "Betrayal," newly arrived in the Lyttelton almost 20 years after Harold Pinter's shimmering drama premiered in the same auditorium, under Peter Hall's direction. Greeted with mixed (at best) reviews upon its debut, the play has rightly acquired the status of a classic over time as the multiple meanings of its title become richer and more disturbing. There's all the more reason, then, to wish for a more exact (and exacting), less cluttered response to the play than Nunn offers up in a staging so over-embellished that one senses a failure of nerve in this sparest of texts to speak for itself. If so, that's a shame, though the play itself more than survives. For all its ellipses and silences, "Betrayal" bears out a master of the pause at his most voluble.

Who or what is betrayed? On a purely narrative level, the answer is Robert (Anthony Calf), the publisher who doesn't realize -- then again, maybe he does -- that lissome wife Emma (Imogen Stubbs) has had a longtime liaison with best friend Jerry (Douglas Hodge). The adultery has ended by the time the play begins, but numerous other betrayals continue to intensify. Those include that of language by feelings that the characters' often clipped, encoded discourse can't readily accommodate (by play's end, the mere mention of the game "squash" seems to stand for all manner of other, less benign pursuits), as well as the betrayal of what one might call "form" -- an important issue for Emma and Jerry -- by the content of lives far messier than this well-heeled trio seems to want to admit to.

In terms of the play's own form, one could argue that "Betrayal" upends -- reinvents, even -- conventional dramaturgy. By telling his tale (mostly) backwards over nine years, Pinter makes virtually every encounter doubly resonant. The power of "Betrayal," indeed, lies in its qualifies as a psychological detective story so potent that one person's grip of another one's arm has repercussions well beyond a drunken and impulsive gesture, just as a different character's decision to roll up his sleeves leaves the audience unclear whether he has come to caress -- or to attack.

The language does both, and it is one of the achievements of this play that its talk is seductive and lethal by turns. Indeed, for all the play's putative grounding in lustful expressions of ardor, bitterness and anger are what linger far beyond the passion: "I was happy, such a rare thing," Calf's Robert admits over a second bottle of white wine, the man a quietly fierce embodiment of in vino veritas. Elsewhere, a double negative from Jerry -- "Don't think we don't love each other," he tells Emma -- raises the specter of the requiem for love that the play in large part constitutes. To that degree, it's tempting to view "Betrayal" as the unwitting progenitor of, say, the Broadway-bound "Closer," the no less sorrowful (if linguistically far more blunt) Patrick Marber drama whose own cunning structure pays a canny nod to Pinter.

"Betrayal" demands a cleanness of attack to match the pared-down language. It's mildly disconcerting, then, to watch the actors (Arturo Venegas completes the lineup as an Italian waiter of amusing solicitousness) be swallowed up by a set from Es Devlin that oddly approximates the looming concrete bunker that is the National Theater building itself. Chris Laing's video design fills in the characters' lives between scenes with fleeting images of children, water (to sketch in Venice), and the like. Missing is the by-no-means sterile sense of cool that director David Leveaux ("Electra") brought to the same play in his superlative Almeida Theater revival in 1992. It's as if in scenically fleshing out the play, Nunn has only made it flabbier, when it's the ostensibly simpler approach that renders "Betrayal" most complex.

In performance terms, the principal victim of the prevailing busy-ness is Stubbs (Nunn's real-life wife), whose Emma is so breathy and overinflected that the character's prismatic allure and devastation are all but lost. (To this observer, the great Emma remains Blythe Danner in the play's 1980 Broadway premiere: a glistening diamond of barely suppressed desire.) No doubt reflecting Nunn's resetting of the play in 1998 and not 1978 (when it was written), Hodge cuts a far more laddish Jerry than any of his predecessors; he's also a funnier corner of a three-way triangle that leaves open to debate just who has the last laugh.

Playing Robert, Calf suggests an Oxbridge-educated control freak who can't conceal the violence that accompanies the play's most shocking betrayal. That comes not quite midway through when Robert describes an "old itch" which is revealed to be the "good bashing" that this cultivated man of letters likes to give his wife. We never see such an assault (though you do in the film) but the air is pregnant with its affect as Pinter dares to anatomize those cruelest of moments when passion betrays itself as rage.
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Title Annotation:Review; Royal National Theater, Lyttelton, London
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 14, 1998

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