If you know anything about theatre, you know of Harold Pinter. And if you’ve heard of Harold Pinter, you know that he loves his pauses. He loves to nest in them, tempt women to them and spawn new life out of them. It is within the pauses that his plays take on life.
That said, if a play is made up almost entirely of the things that aren’t said — the glances, the gestures, the tone of voice — then it can be widely open to interpretation, including those that ultimately fail. But failure is not the name of the game for Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s rendition of Betrayal, one of Pinter’s master plays. The production is so full of pregnant (tee hee — belly full of lively silence) pauses that I was squirming in my seat from the tension. Actors Kristen Harris (Emma), Ron Lea (Robert) and Omar Khan (Jerry) fill every moment with a beautiful subtext that leaves each of their attachments to one another perfectly clear.
You see, Betrayal is the story of a love triangle told in reverse. At the outset of the play, in the present, Emma and Robert’s marriage is ending, and Emma meets up with her old lover, Jerry, who is also Robert’s best friend. Pinter continues the story in reverse, going back in time through the years of Emma and Jerry’s affair, the marriage between Robert and Emma, and the friendship between Jerry and Robert. Every scene deals with a secret, or one person that knows more than the others. By starting in the present, Pinter gives the audience the gift of hindsight, which makes each scene a little more uncomfortable than the last.
Director Mariam Bernstein has added just the right amount of self-involvement and disregard for others (a la “I wasn’t sorry about my actions, but then I got caught”) to spice things up. After all, as Bernstein says, “In the moment we make the choice to betray, we block out the possibility of consequences.” We focus inward to the degree that we forget that our actions affect others. The sometimes complete disregard for the feelings of others was so nasty that it was fun.
It’s always most interesting when, as an audience member, I can empathize with all of the characters, even the ones that cheat, lie, steal and kill, and Bernstein definitely assisted her actors in being relatable jerks. I was, however, at times confused by Ron Lea’s portrayal of Robert, the betrayed husband. Maybe “confused” isn’t the right word. Perhaps I simply found that I couldn’t relate to him fully. While it was very funny that he perpetually tested his wife and best friend, and his subtext was consistently strong, it seemed a little one-note at times. As an actor, Lea has a natural intensity and stillness about him that perfectly fit the play. Yet, I never believed that he had a single iota of regret about the end of his marriage. So, I guess it does seem a little funny that I couldn’t empathize with the character that was, “technically,” not doing anything wrong. Maybe that’s the whole point. I’m left a little boggled. Isn’t Pinter amazing?!
My favourite scene, hands down, was the one in which Emma and Jerry decided to end their relationship. It was painful but brilliant. Kristen Harris has the wonderful ability to display her entire heart on her face, and I enjoyed her many layers. I was able to feel her resolution that the relationship was over, simultaneous with her wish that Jerry not want it to end. It is such a lovely sensation when you can watch a play and think that the writing and the acting work in harmony to make a wonderful marriage (even when the characters can’t seem to get it together).
The WJT’s run of Betrayal continues this week, with performances from Feb. 3-7 at 8 p.m..