English playwright Harold Pinter is the master of stripping characters to the nerve with disarmingly spare but astringent dialogue. The result can be a soul-cauterizing experience for the audience – an effect that’s made Pinter’s 1978 work “Betrayal” one of his most critically acclaimed.
“Betrayal,” which uses reverse chronology to tell a story inspired by one of the playwright’s extramarital affairs, was made into a 1983 film starring Jeremy Iron. It’s scheduled for a revival starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz that opens on Broadway on Oct. 27.
“Betrayal,” which runs through Sept. 28, kicked off the 2013–14 season for Soulstice Theatre in St. Francis. The play is just one in a season of challenges, both for the company and its audience, says Jillian Smith, Soulstice Theatre’s board chair.
“The primary mission of Soulstice is to create meaningful theatre that challenges, inspires and entertains,” Smith says. “We enjoy challenging not only our audiences, but ourselves as artists.”
Capturing the spirit of “Betrayal” may be one of the company’s most difficult projects to date. The challenge comes not from elaborate staging or a large cast, but in capturing and communicating the essence and emotion of the drama buried within Pinter’s lean and muscular text. The author’s deliberate lack of subtext for his characters requires actors and directors mounting the drama to unearth what is hidden in silence.
“With Pinter, you have nothing but his words to flesh out who the characters are and where they’re coming from,” says Josh Perkins, Soulstice’s stage manager and vice president.
“Betrayal” focuses on the seven-year clandestine love affair between Emma (Amy Hansmann), who is married to Robert (Joe Krapf), and Jerry (Andrew Riebau), Robert’s best friend who is married to Judith. The reverse chronology begins in 1977, when the lovers meet two years after the affair has ended, and ends in 1968, when Jerry first declares his love for Emma. The structure is designed to strip away artifice and show, sometimes quite heartlessly, that such affairs require the betrayal not only of others, but of ourselves as well.
The drama draws on Pinter’s affair with BBC broadcaster Joan Blakewell, who at the time was married to producer/director Michael Blakewell, while Pinter was married to actress Vivian Merchant. Although known in certain circles, the affair achieved full public knowledge when the lovers spoke about it in their authorized biographies. Pinter wrote “Betrayal” while engaged in another affair, this time with writer Lady Antonia Fraser, for whom he eventually divorced Merchant to marry.
Matt Michaelis, the show’s director, says the reverse chronology allows the audience and the artists to more closely and honestly examine the affair and its impact.
“By beginning with the end and slowly slipping back in time, we’re allowed insight into the future, Michaelis says. “We learn why the same question posed two years in the future held so much more meaning.”
In fact, the structure brings an intellectual depth, maybe even a truthful brutality to the company’s interpretation of the work, he adds.
“‘Betrayal’ requires an honesty in interpretation,” Michaelis says. “From everyone involved with the production, it requires a willingness to explore the emotionally gray areas of relationships, and the choices one makes and rationalizes.”
“Betrayal” begins the last season for Soulstice Theatre founding artistic director Char Manny, who will direct the season’s second production, Steve Martin’s comedy “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”