January 7, 2004: Pinter, Betrayal

Duchess Theatre, Directed by Sir Peter Hall

This is the right theatre for this play — one of the smallest auditoriums in London, good for the intimate atmosphere the play requires.

I don’t have a lot to say about this production. It is well directed by Hall (who directed the National Theatre premier in 1978 when he was director of the NT). Extensive excerpts from his diaries recording the event are printed in the program. The time of the play has been updated so that the chronology ends with the present day and then recedes back some years to the point where Jerry falls in love with Emma, Robert’s wife, and initiates their seven-year-long love affair.

The setting is, however, very problematic, in my view. We see two picture frames, the larger as wide as the proscenium arch itself, with a gap in the base through which actors can walk and props can be moved. The smaller is further upstage, surrounding a static built piece, a kind of emblematic still life composed of chairs and some tables constructed into a sort of helter-skelter pyramid, painted a uniform dark grey; into this have been inserted two street signs, the address of the flat taken by Emma and Jerry for their love affair. Also inserted in it are items of a more iconic nature: a soccer ball, a large teddy bear, and a small child’s scooter. This construction is on view throughout the performance. To my mind this tries to capture a kind of thematic connectedness about the events of the play, but only succeeds in trivializing and moralizing them. “Oh, the poor children of these betrayed betrayers, what must their lives have been like?” — says this construct. Could Pinter have seen and approved this effective betrayal of his subject and his consistent interest in the intricacies of human infidelity? How could Peter Hall have okayed such a banal travesty of a work that presents Pinter at his most precise and clear and relentless? The writing is simply superb. There is never the slightest distance between the complex emotional valences constantly on view and the dramatic and linguistic means he invents to convey them in all their sad and terrible authenticity.

I enjoyed the performances of the three major actors very much, but most of all that of Janie Dee as Emma — very carefully controlled and articulated and at the same time emotionally deep and complex. Beautifully paced and timed also. Aden Gillette as Jerry and Hugo Speer as Robert were very well cast for contrast, even as they mirrored the coherent characteristics of a certain cohort of minor actors in the everyday comedy-drama of the London publishing world. Pinter reveals something of its superficiality and mendacity, but social satire or commentary is a card he never plays (any more than O’Neill does). His abiding interest lies in what makes people tick, what makes them on occasion fall apart, and above all what strategies they adopt for survival in a world where little or nothing can be depended on and nothing lasts forever, least of all faith, trust, and love.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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