Tariq Leslie and Corina Akeson Credit: Scott Zechner
Tariq Leslie and Corina Akeson
Credit: Scott Zechner

At the Jericho Arts Centre (in repertory with The Romans in Britain and The Country Wife) until August 19, 2016 or at the door

Posted July 16, 2016

There’s a line in this 1978 Pinter play that’s absolutely explosive. It comes in the second of nine scenes and you’ll know it when you hear it. Blowing the play wide open, it comes as a surprise; the play is no longer about a single betrayal but betrayal after betrayal.

Innovative at the time it was written, Betrayal begins in 1977 and works it way back to 1968. The play opens with Jerry, married to Judith (whom we never see) rendezvous-ing with Emma, with whom he had a seven-year affair that ended two years ago. Emma is married to Robert, Jerry’s best friend, but in Scene 1 she tells Jerry her marriage is over. Robert is a publisher; Jerry is a literary agent. Emma is now having an affair with a novelist whose agent is Jerry and whose publisher is Robert. It’s a nest of infidelities.

There are also glimmers of a homosexual attraction between Jerry and Robert but perhaps it’s just the squaring off of two sexual combatants.

James Gill and Tariq Leslie Credit: Scott Zechner
James Gill and Tariq Leslie
Credit: Scott Zechner

Interestingly, Betrayal is less about who is/was sleeping with whom but who was told about the affair and when. The play doesn’t dwell on it, but there are children involved – the casualties of these entanglements.

Adding to the play’s juiciness is knowing that it parallels Pinter’s seven-year extramarital affair with BBC personality, Joan Bakewell, while he was married to actress Vivien Merchant. During the affair with Bakewell, Pinter was also carrying on with an American socialite – a fact he kept hidden from both his wife and Bakewell. There was plenty of first-hand betrayal experience in Pinter’s tumultuous personal life.

Presented by Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) under the artistic direction of Tariq Leslie, Betrayal is a guest production in the Jericho Arts Centre, home of United Players. Directed by Matthew Bissett, it’s a tight, faced-paced seventy minutes. Tariq Leslie (Jerry) and James Gill (Robert) may as well be on the squash court, referred to repeatedly by Robert. The men are clearly competitors although they say they are “best friends” or “close friends”. Both Leslie and Gill are physically commanding. It’s clear, though, that Robert has the upper hand and Gill makes that almost snarlingly obvious with a slightly curled lip and a perpetually challenging attitude. Leslie’s Jerry doesn’t actually defer to Robert, but Leslie gives the impression that Robert is calling the shots. Jerry condescendingly refers to Emma’s new lover Casey as “his boy”; Jerry is – whether he knows it or not – Robert’s “boy”.

Corina Akeson Credit: Scott Zechner
Corina Akeson
Credit: Scott Zechner

Perhaps we all remember certain actors in certain roles and that becomes a kind of benchmark. Corina Akeson was brilliant in the all-female Glengarry Glen Ross back in 2015. Cross-dressed as a man, she was lanky and brash. That’s how I think of Akeson but here she is all female: lovely, flirtatious and sexy in Scene 1 but elegant and melancholy by Scene 9.

No one has much money in the theatre and it’s, unfortunately, evident in this production. Interesting and thematically appropriate is the sand that falls from above into a glass vase centre stage but perhaps it would have been a good idea to source slightly better looking furniture on the set. Surely Emma and Jerry would meet in a lounge with tables more elegant than arborite with metal legs? Small quibble.

Detractors complain that Betrayal is a play about bored, self-absorbed adults playing with their lives and the lives of others. That may be true but Pinter absolutely nails the complexity and the sadness of how badly some intelligent, articulate adults screw up. That he does it with true-to-life language, natural speech rhythms and occasional humour is Sir Harold’s genius.

The Ensemble Theatre Company. Credit: Scott Zechner
The Ensemble Theatre Company. Left to right: Betrayal, The Romans in Britain and The Country Wife.
Credit: Scott Zechner