July 29, 2015

Reversal of Misfortune

by Harold Pinter
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
July 28. Tickets: $ 27 – $ 69.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until August 15.
Duration: 100 minutes

When Harold Pinter was asked by his biographer whether drawing on real people and personal events for his 1978 play, Betrayal constituted any kind of moral dilemma or breach of trust, he replied : “I think every writer does that one way or another . Otherwise what are we writing about ? …We are not writing about the moon.”

Betrayal which takes actual incidents from Pinter’s seven year relationship with the prominent TV journalist Joan Bakewell, is a disturbingly forensic account of a triangulated relationship between Jerry, a literary agent, his close friend Robert, a successful publisher, and Robert’s wife Emma with whom he has a clandestine affair.

In nine polished, verbally minimal scenes, Pinter rewinds a series of encounters from 1977 back to 1968. The reverse ordering has a perturbing effect as the dramatic ironies multiply and our knowledge of later events subverts and curdles whatever “innocence” the covert romance might have had. Unlike Noel Coward who trivialised the solemnity of marriage to make hay in Private Lives, or the romping farce of Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife, Pinter reveals the inevitable incongruity and social humiliation of English infidelity. Not only will three into two not go, but the diminution of the self is an even worse betrayal.

In this carefully poised, dramatically rewarding, State Theatre production, director Geordie Brookman keeps close to Pinter’s austere tone. There are few jokes, not much breaks the gathering tension and, while Pinter’s is a portrait of human frailty, you wouldn’t call it warmly Chekhovian.

Geoff Cobham’s set and lighting design is intriguingly eccentric. Instead of a sleek, brightly lit 1970s naturalism, the action takes place in a huge octagonal shell with dark vertical pillars and bunches of lights spraying searchingly down on the feckless mortals. The scene changes (punctuated by sound designer, Jason Sweeney’s richly abrasive electro-industrial distortion and wistful prepared piano) feature a long revolving costume rack loaded with props and more clothes than the production could ever use. Given the references to Jerry reading Yeats, perhaps this is the poet’s “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The performances, each betrayals of a different kind, are excellent. Alison Bell is outstanding as Emma, one of Pinter’s best female portraits. Bell memorably captures her depth of feeling, spontaneity and intelligence – and her weariness at being a trophy for two rivals. As Jerry, Nathan O’ Keefe dispenses with his sunny charm and is instead, unworldly, gormless in his infatuation, and out-gamed by both his lover and her husband. Mark Saturno as Robert, is unsparing. At times brutal, misogynist, hostile and abject, he charts the unacknowledged homoerotic subtext in Pinter’s vivid, but painfully revealing, life study.

Murray Bramwell

“Reversal of Misfortune” The Australian, July 30, 2015, p.16.

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