George Washbourn wasn’t let down by Drama Society’s performance of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’
UCL student theatre has stepped onto a new stage this year, both figuratively and physically. With the loss of the theatrical hub that was the Garage Theatre, UCLU Drama Soc performances have become nomadic, roaming around campus like a travelling bohemian circus. While student plays may have no fixed location for the foreseeable future, this had zero bearing on last night’s unshakeably grounded and chilling opening performance of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a touchstone text which drags its audience backwards through the mire of a seven year long affair.
With a catalogue of strong performances across the board, director Laurence Young has rendered a mesmeric and ripe production, capably giving its canonical content justice.
We open with a man and a woman sitting back to back on centre stage, attempting to catch up after a long period of absence. It’s been two years since they last met one to one, yet their conversation is stilted and formulaic, consisting of the occasional lightweight anecdote or pleasantry. The pair is Emma and Jerry, previously lovers and perpetrators of a tumultuous extramarital affair, spanning seven years. The play then takes us back, reversing the narrative to showcase the original attraction, the affair’s conclusion and the myriad levels of betrayal enacted upon Robert and Judith, Emma’s husband and Jerry’s wife respectively.
The play rests on a large dollop of dramatic irony, the audience forever being one or two steps ahead of the characters. This ranked up the tension considerably and made for a number of high-pressure moments. A lunch scene between Jerry and Robert in which Robert has just days before found out about Jerry’s extensive with his wife sparked palpable ripples of tension through the crowd, a distinctly nervous muttering being heard after certain cuttingly loaded scraps of dialogue.
The play’s brilliance can mostly be attributed to its fantastic performances, given by every member of its minimalist 4-person cast. Adam Wooley’s performance is brilliant as Jerry, an emotional wreck of a man, riddled with suspicion and despair at the situation in which he and Emma find themselves. Bex Parker-Smith is great as Emma, steering her reliably through the various tones of the play, flitting back and forth between anguish and romance with commanding ease. The star performance of the night was Karen Gill as Robert, Emma’s husband, a performance given with such an air of maturity that it almost had a hypnotic quality. He embodies the sharp wit of his character convincingly, while also maintaining an unnerving and brooding sense of danger that his character may at any point strike out. Credit also to Roberto Valdo Cortese as the waiter, a small comedic cameo part that provided some light relief amid the claustrophobic tension of the rest of the play.
The jigsaw narrative of the play is put to great effect, pieces of the puzzle slowly falling together to reveal a rather grim image of the modern marriage and the role of trust in relationships. The scenes were divided using atmospheric music that nostalgically hummed, capably handled by the UCL stage crew team. In many ways, the play reminded me of Patrick Marber’s play-gone-film Closer, in their shared dissection of the modern relationship, both pieces displaying hopelessly flimsy relationships built like a house of cards. However, just as when a house of cards comes invariably crashing down, there’s always a part of you that finds enjoyment in watching it happen, and that enjoyment certainly comes across in this play.
Minimalist theatre, typical of Pinter, is always a bit of a risky enterprise and a theatrical hot potato. Without the safety net of spectacular sets or flamboyant lighting, the play’s enjoyment value rests solely on the plot and the performances it inspires. Thankfully for this production, in spite of its arguably overly long length, the brilliance of the performances shines blindingly through, making it a play that I thoroughly recommend you see.
Image credits: Roberto Valdo Cortese