By Shanon Shah
The semi-autobiographical domestic drama by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, Betrayal (staged at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre Pentas 2 between January 5th and 14th), starts off with a scene between a pair of former adulterous lovers, Emma and Jerry. From their conversation we eventually learn that, apart from their affair, another major relationship has unravelled — Emma’s marriage to Robert, who happens to be Jerry’s colleague and best friend. We are left to question what happens with the other major relationships at stake: the friendship between Robert and Jerry, and even Jerry’s relationship with his own wife, Judith (who is discussed but never appears in the play).
Considering the perpetual dearth of good, original writing for Malaysian theatre, the choice to stage this much-acclaimed work was indeed gratifying — if only to introduce good playwriting to new audiences. Furthermore, given the nationwide obsession with couplings and de-couplings — consider, over the past year, the ruckus over Mawi’s break-up with his fiancé; Siti Nurhaliza’s wedding; the shamefaced revelation of rock star Awie’s clandestine polygamous marriage (made known through his acrimonious divorce from first wife Arni Nazira); and the resurgence of public debate on polygamy (although, strictly speaking, this is not about coupling, but rather tripling, quadrupling and so on) — the choice to stage this particular Pinter play seemed quite apt.
My excitement about this particular production was personal: a few months ago, while browsing the aisles of Kinokuniya, I chanced upon a list of must-read plays in Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Art & Craft of Playwriting. Betrayal was given quite a prominent mention, so I decided to get the text — but it stayed on my bookshelf for a bit, untouched. News of KLPac’s staging made me immediately devour the play. Needless to say, I was immensely impressed.
It is deceptively simple in form: throughout nine scenes, unfolding in reverse chronological order, the play moves through the stages of Jerry and Emma’s affair, while also exploring the unravelling of Emma and Robert’s marriage. The dialogue is classic Pinter: seemingly trivial on the surface, but punctuated with pauses and silences that just keep building tension.
Director James Lee, in his programme notes, admitted that: ‘The play is quite a tough one,’ adding that he quickly realised this during the rehearsal process. Coming from James — who has won international accolades for writing and directing minimalist, Taiwanese New Wave (and some might argue even Pinter-esque) films such as Room to Let and The Beautiful Washing Machine — I admire this kind of candid honesty as an artist. Unfortunately for him, though, his struggle with Betrayal‘s text took its toll on the life of the production, as a whole.
Take, for example, the opening scene: Emma (Bernice Chauly) has a crucial revelation to make to Jerry (Ari Ratos) — she has confessed her affair with Jerry to her husband, Robert (Vernon Adrian Emuang), and they are separating — which she tries to evade by talking about more trivial matters. The dialogue is understated, opening with a simple “How are you?” from Emma:
JERRY: All right.
EMMA: You look well.
JERRY: Well, I’m not all that well, really.
EMMA: Why? What’s the matter?
But there is real feeling to be found underneath this apparent banality, and it is revealed in the strategic pauses and silences. Very important information is revealed in this understated manner.
Yet the flatness with which Ari’s Jerry responded that night did nothing to peel away the many layers of betrayal that continued surfacing throughout the play. Instead, it made him come across as merely sleazy — it conjured images of a lecherous English vicar in my own mind. Perhaps it might have provoked some audience members to think: “Well thank God she stopped seeing him — wonder what her husband is like?”
The visual effect of smoke curling up from Bernice’s lit cigarette became an almost ghostly presence, hanging over Emma and Jerry’s heads — but this sense of suspense was killed in the very next scene, when Jerry summons Robert to his study, seeking absolution.
Looking like a character out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and with the same monotonous delivery that plagued Ari’s performance, Vernon’s Robert appeared as even more of a schmuck than Jerry. We eventually learn that, in addition to indulging in his own extra-marital adventures, he has been prone to treating Emma violently in their marriage: “It’s true I’ve hit Emma once or twice. But that wasn’t to defend a principle … I just felt like giving her a good bashing.”
At this point, we were left to wonder what on earth Emma ever saw in either of these men. We knew exactly what both of them would’ve — or should’ve, or could’ve - seen in Emma: a luminous performance by Bernice made her character suitably brittle, when confronted with the uncomfortable questions Robert and Jerry ask her; and comfortably sexy at other, more playful moments.
Unfortunately, the one-dimensional portrayals of her co-actors meant that the scenes that did not include Emma seemed interminable. Take, for example, the scene where Robert and Jerry have dinner. In this scene, Robert knows that Jerry is having an affair with Emma, but Jerry does not know that Robert knows. A waiter intrudes, periodically, to draw their attention to the menu and their food.
It is a scene fraught with much tension and irony — yet Ari and Vernon again came off flat, and the scene actually sagged. By the time the waiter (played by Caecar Chong) made his appearance, the comic relief (“Venice, signore? Beautiful … You see that painting on the wall?” — and a light comes on a seat in the audience, leaving him or her to blink or cower — “Is Venice.”) seemed forced and obligatory. It was such as shame, because every single one of Pinter’s lines and pauses could have yielded so much more drama.
Small, Low Key
I’m not sure if this flatness was a decision made by the actors or the director. Quoting James’s notes again, the production tried to ‘offer a glimpse of an affair that is played out as a small, low key realistic study of human beings trapped in a very real situation which could happen to anyone, anywhere at anytime’.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in envisioning Betrayal played out in a low key and realistic style. Pinter is extremely sparse with his stage directions and does not rigidly prescribe any stylistic formula for staging the play. Here are some of the more typical stage directions to be found in the published text: ‘She laughs‘; ‘Emma on bed reading. Robert at window looking out. She looks up at him, then back at the book‘; and, of course, ‘Silence‘ and ‘Pause‘.
My point is that, even though it makes sense for the text to be staged in a minimalist style, there is actually no explicit instruction from the playwright himself for any kind of rigid stylistic adherence. With James’s direction, I felt that ‘small’ and ‘low key’ came across as ‘stifled’ and ‘flat’.
The decision to project a slideshow of ‘happier’ times at the end of the play (not in the original text) illustrates my point. Ideally, it would have been unnecessary; any sort of dramatic colouring of these pleasant memories was already there in the text to begin with. In fact, both Jerry and Emma recount this incident — Jerry taking Emma’s daughter Charlotte and tossing her in the air — once each, in great detail. Here, however, their delivery was stifled in the interest of the aforementioned ‘low key’ execution. Perhaps this is why the production had a need to exhibit a slideshow that recreated this incident so literally.
There were other problems, as well. The set seemed unnecessarily literal for such a simple play, resulting in laborious and overlong scene changes, masked by a soundtrack of morose song choices. The unfortunate positioning of boom microphones cast awkward shadows over the screen projections, creating unintended comic effects; the clumsy scene changes prolonged this unintended comedy.
Fortunately, for fans of Pinter, the brilliance of his writing still shines through. Betrayal makes us think about how boundaries of loyalty are drawn and redrawn in human relationships. Is one person’s betrayal of another justified if the other party has also committed an act of betrayal? Is there a possibility of the betrayer redeeming the betrayed at any point — or vice versa? Or do we only betray others because we can’t help betraying ourselves?
First Published: 16.01.2007 on Kakiseni