By Harold Pinter. State Theatre Company of South Australia. Directed by Geordie Brookman. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre. 24 July-15 August, 2015

One of great British playwright Harold Pinter’s most innovative, thought provoking and subtly humorous scripts is given an extremely plodding, unimaginative and heavy-handed staging from the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Some bravura acting from the leading players and the compelling wit of Pinter’s words are the only things that save it from being a complete disaster, as the intrusive, monotonous soundtrack, coupled with some really leaden direction, serves to drain so much life out of the story being told onstage.

Betrayal presents nine significant moments in the life of beautiful art gallery owner, Emma (Alison Bell), who, over the course of seven years, engages in an extra-marital affair with dapper literary agent, Jerry (Nathan O’Keefe), the best friend of her wealthy publishing executive husband, Robert (Mark Saturno).  These scenes unfold in reverse chronological order, beginning with the bitter severance of ties between these characters and concluding with their initially merry “getting to know you” bonding.  More than a mere gimmick, this backwards storytelling adds layers of subtle irony to the scenes in which the characters struggle to maintain a convincing social mask for their duplicity, as well as enhancing the poignancy of scenes where the characters are presented with the opportunity to turn their lives around for the better, but ultimately lack the strength to do what they know in their hearts to be right.

Pinter is renowned for his use of pregnant pauses, loaded with unspoken tension. Unfortunately, director Geordie Brookman has allowed these moments to drag out much longer than is strictly necessary, with many scenes coming across as unnaturally slow, despite the best efforts of the cast to fill the silence with meaningful gestures.

Jason Sweeney’s overbearing sound design also does much to undermine the drama. Each scene transition is scored with bleak, industrial edged techno tunes reminiscent of 90s music by Radiohead and Massive Attack. These electronic soundscapes seem jarringly at odds with the play’s 1970s setting, especially given costume designer, Alisa Paterson’s, soberly authentic recreation of period fashions. Although more irritating is the lack of emotional nuance in the music – it doesn’t matter if Sweeney is seguing into a light hearted romantic rendezvous, or a scene of a married couple fighting, all of his incidental music has the same bleak, dirge-like solemnity.

It falls on the cast to carry the day, and they put up a brave fight. Saturno brings a dark charisma and razor sharp comic timing to the role of the smarmy, snarky husband, provoking much hearty laughter from the opening night audience. Bell brings an almost childlike vulnerability to the romantic yearning of the unfaithful wife, making it very difficult for the audience not to sympathise with her, despite her various unsavoury acts. O’Keefe is heartwrenching in the scenes that require him to lose all sense of self-worth as his world falls apart, however, other scenes which call upon him to project a confident, charming swagger are less convincing. It’s also worth looking out for John Maurice, who delivers a comic, scene stealing turn as a clueless waiter.

Betrayal is not a play that is performed all that often, and hardcore Pinter aficionados or fans of the actors involved in this production may be willing to put up with Brookman’s baffling direction and Sweeney’s awful soundtrack, just to savour the beauty of hearing these words spoken so well. But for those less devoted to the playwright and/or performers, this Betrayal is likely to prove an uncomfortable slog.

Benjamin Orchard

Photographer: Shane Reid

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