T he year 2016 marks a new dawn for the Northcott Theatre. Firstly, there’s the new Executive Director, Paul Jepson, who has brought with him a scintillating vision for the future. Secondly, there’s a newly-renovated box office, which now gracefully adorns the front entrance. But as is so often the case in theatre, most of the action is happening behind-the-scenes; the Northcott staff, boosted by well-deserved Arts Council funding, have been working night and day to prove their mettle, and tonight is the culmination of these efforts. Jepson’s plan to set up new in-house productions is about to be unleashed, and the hope is that Harold Pinter’s Betrayal will be the first of many plays to take the theatre from strength to strength over the coming years.
Betrayal was certainly a bold choice. Browsing the programme before the play begins, I’m introduced to Pinter’s philosophy: finding the drama in daily life, and offering scripts “stripped of clear explanation”. As soon as the play begins, I realise there’s going to be no helpful information for the audience; Pinter refuses to casually drop character names into the dialogue without reason, so I’m left waiting patiently for Jerry, Robert and Emma to be properly introduced. In many ways, I admire this realism, but it leaves me feeling slightly uncomfortable too.
The set looks like a graphic designer’s high street showroom, with a handful of large prints suspended from the ceiling to offer striking visual clues for each scene. As the house lights go down, a stylish projection onto one of these colourful ‘cards’ introduces the opening location: “Pub. 1977. Spring.” Designer Timothy Bird also makes use of nifty sliding platforms on the floor, which move like clockwork to seamlessly swap scenery and furniture in from backstage; it’s a pleasure to watch, especially when Robert slides out on one side to be physically (and metaphorically) replaced by Jerry, his wife’s lover, on the other side.
“NIFTY SLIDING PLATFORMS ON THE FLOOR MOVE LIKE CLOCKWORK TO SEAMLESSLY SWAP SCENERY AND FURNITURE IN FROM BACKSTAGE”
The plot is a classic love triangle. In simple terms, Robert’s wife, Emma, has been having an affair with his best friend, Jerry, for seven years. Interestingly, however, Pinter chooses to start the story after the entire affair has blown over. This reversed chronology is a fascinating shift away from the expected, as we trace the highs and lows of the relationship back to its inception: a drunken night’s kiss.
But there’s a problem here, and it’s blindingly obvious from that very first scene in the pub. Emma and Jerry haven’t seen each other for two years, and they’re now meeting up (as friends) to discuss her divorce from Robert. It’s an awkward meeting — with more prolonged silences than your average English seminar — but of course that’s entirely purposeful. However, the backwards chronology and the excruciating awkwardness combine to create a premature anti-climax: it’s hard to get caught up in the drama when we know it’s all going to fizzle out eventually. Emma (played by Sarah-Jane Potts) is a beguilingly smart character, but throughout the play there’s very little chemistry between her and Jerry (Nick Moran); even when time rewinds to the height of their romance, I’m still struggling to convince myself they’re actually in love.
Robert (Simon Merrells) gives a much-needed kick of energy and humour to the play when he’s introduced in the second scene; he calmly reveals that he’s known about the affair for four years, and guessed something was wrong when Jerry stopped playing squash with him: a quaint motif for betrayal amongst the middle classes if ever there was one. Jerry’s amazed reaction at this revelation is similarly amusing, and the audience chuckles around me at the enjoyable irony: the cheat has been deceived.
The jokes are gloriously witty and sarcastic, and reminiscent of Stoppard — especially when Robert is talking to his wife about Jerry and admits, “I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.” The Italian waiter (Devon-born Leopold Boyle) offers a particularly entertaining addition in the second act, as the dialogue briefly jumps into a string of absurdist brilliance — before the plot pulls it straight back down to earth.
For some reason, I’m just not being drawn in; I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s because that fog of awkward tension from the first scene has never truly gone away. Just before the interval, Emma cried on Robert’s shoulder without any dialogue or build-up, and something tells me that was Pinter at his best: unexplained, unadorned actions, snatched straight out of daily life and carefully reconstructed on stage. This play is all about these intricacies, but at times I simply feel like I’ve gone to the party of a mutual friend, to be left alone with the hosts, who are now arguing about something dull like furniture or light switches. Quite frankly, if I’d wanted awkwardness, I’d have just gone on a blind date.
Betrayal is running at the Northcott Theatre from 18 February to 5 March. Tickets are available from exeternorthcott.co.uk.