At the Singapore Repertory Theatre
Shabana Azmi, Peter Friedman, Simon Jones
One of Harold Pinter's greatest plays (and that's saying a lot), Betrayal tells the story of an affair in reverse, from a gathering of two former lovers Emma (Shabana Azmi) and Jerry (Peter Friedman) two years after the end of the affair, to the moment of declaration of affection. Yet Betrayal is about far more than the most obvious betrayal of adultery. It is about betrayal in many forms: the ways in which we betray lovers, friends, and ourselves, and the way life itself betrays expectations of how anything should turn out. Emma's husband is Jerry's best friend Robert (Simon Jones), who seems initially the poor cuckolded husband, before the play betrays our own assumptions and expectations, with revelations of casual violence ("I've hit Emma once or twice") and of Robert's knowledge of his wife's affair. It's a love triangle of sorts, given how significant Robert and Jerry's friendship are (Robert goes on, in a memorable bit, about why women shouldn't join in their regular squash game).
The Singapore Repertory Theatre's staging opens with a spare stage dominated by one large leather chair - all the better to spotlight Pinter's economical language. as Jerry notes, not bitterly, "You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife". Short cadences, each word gaining meaning later in the play when we learn the context behind it. The staging also serves to highlight the excellent acting of the two male leads, Friedman (is one obliged to say "the Tony-nominated Peter Friedman"?) and Jones. Less convincing is as Azmi as Emma, who comes across as a bit too mannered.
So Betrayal explores how its titular topic corrodes, stripping down love and friendship, infecting relationships. It also suggests an interesting question: is betrayal just the act of deceit itself, or is providing the confirmation of the act to the betrayed party an important part of betrayal? Dramatic irony naturally punctuates Betrayal, given that its structure means we are the only ones who know what the impact of the choices the characters are making. But even as the characters shed their knowledge by going back, we in the audience gain the burden of knowing, as we move inevitably towards the prelapsarian past: the play's initial references to reading Yeats on Torcello or to the flat at Kilburn all gain added significance when Torcello and Kilburn are mentioned again.
By going backwards, the play pares away the layers of life that accrete onto one's character - responsibilities, pregnancies, and so on - to a singularity: Jerry first declaration of love to Emma, "You are the only thing that has happened". At the end, we are left to reflect that it all seems such a promising start, with the universe collapsed into one person. And through this chronological regression, Betrayal manages to ask us the same, awkward question that anyone who's ever had a breakup or anyone who's had a friendship gone awry asks: how did things get to this point?