DramaReviewSouth West

Betrayal: The Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Paul Jepson
Reviewer: Charlotte Robson

 

Harold Pinter’s iconic play comes to the Northcott Theatre as the debut of the new Artistic and Executive Director, Paul Jepson. The story of Emma, Robert and Jerry – wife, husband, and lover, but not necessarily always in that order. Allegedly based on real events from the life of the author himself, the play has ever been contentious for its subject matter and for its unique style, and is no less so in 2016 than it was in the year of its publication.

Firstly, it would be a crime not to applaud the play for its stunning lighting (Dominic Jeffery), set design (Timothy Bird) and sound design (Jamie Ransom). Built across three sliding platforms, the minimalist sets slide into and out of one another with perfect timing and fluidity, with the actors being pulled away or walking between them as the short scenes recount, in reverse, the tale of the trio’s tangled adulterous relationships.

The liminality of place and space is beautifully expressed and with it the dangerous closeness of each character’s life to those they wish to hide them from. Photographs and still images are used alongside a variety of lighting techniques to aid in the play’s many temporal leaps, ensuring the audience are not lost, and imprinting bold symbols into their minds to carry back through the conversations, following back from the emotional crevasses to the first tiny cracks that birthed them.

However, the rest of the play is altogether more of a conflicted beast – due in many ways to the nature of the text itself. With minimal dialogue, the actors must rely on body language and gesture to convey much of the abstract subtext that is, in truth, more the play’s central subject. All of the tiny cast is admirable, but particular mention must go to Nick Moran as Jerry, whose confusion, fear, desire and hypocrisy are conveyed with the most skill and pathos.

That said, there were moments when the actors seemed to be stressing a line or movement to the point of obtrusiveness, moments when intentionally awkward dialogue was made more so as part of some attempt to reach for a broader point. Sadly, while one may appreciate the intent behind a given directorial choice, there is little possibility that over-acted, awkward, stilted scenes will make for an enjoyable watch.

Many such moments are, in fact, likely to be lost on the watcher entirely. Unless one is well-versed in the stylings and preoccupations of Pinter, certain actions – such as Emma’s (Sarah Jane Potts) tearful breakdown in her husband’s arms in the fourth scene – are seemingly random and without explanation, while others, like the aforementioned’s tendency to stroke the back of her head as a nervous tic, are so heavy handed that the audience feels both alienated and condescended to simultaneously.

Had the production made more effort to consciously stylise thus, or conversely used the natural charm of its actors to humanise it, these decisions might have been outstanding, but as is they merely render the whole production slightly schizophrenic. Even in its most pivotal scenes, the play has no sense of climax or revelation, and while the lighting and sound design do their best to create mood and atmosphere, it cannot escape the monotone imposed by the dialogue’s lack thereof.

Betrayal is, then, left as it began; awkwardly, uncomfortably liminal, with no real energy or personality of its own, inhibited by its difficult source material and a seeming lack of directorial focus.

Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image:Pooch Purtill

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