A “puzzle box”: Broken Toys Theatre plays with Pinter’s Betrayal

Cody Porter, Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook in Betrayal. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Just like old times,” says one character to another in the first scene of Betrayal. Funny how four simple words can evoke a whole world of memory and feeling. But then, this is Harold Pinter, the master of the unsaid, the pregnant pause, the space between the lines.

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Since Pinter’s chronicle of an affair, now over, between two married lovers, happens in reverse chronology, we’re at the end. And in the course of it we’ll backtrack a decade through an intricate nexus of betrayals of marriage and friendship, to the beginning. The 1978 masterwork by the playwright who famously said “I can sum up none of my plays” opens this week in Edmonton, amazingly for the first time. The production, directed by Clinton Carew, is the work of the small but mighty indie company Broken Toy Theatre. 

Silences speak in Pinter. Forget the staccato urgency of TV-like theatre. “If you’re not having people wait (meaningfully) between lines on a semi-regular basis, you’re not doing it right,” grins actor/ director/ playwright/ musician Carew of the 90-minute play widely regarded as one of Pinter’s most accessible. “In North America, now more than ever, people like to have their entertainment compressed…. We’re going to tell this story and we’re not hurrying up to do it.”

Elena Porter, the other half of Broken Toys — she plays Emma, whose lover (Chris W. Cook) is her husband Robert’s (Cody Porter) best friend — echoes the thought. “The words are so precise, so clear, so specific. And when there are no words, it’s just as precise and specific.”

For Carew and Porter, husband and wife in real life, this isn’t a first encounter with the intricacies of Betrayal. Three years ago they played the husband and wife in a U of A production, directed by Suzie Martin. Porter thinks they understand the play in a new way now.

What’s been happening, and in quantity, is … life. It’s gotten exponentially more complicated. And, therefore, so has producing theatre. “In the three years since, we’ve had a child (Penelope is a backstage veteran, at three). My mother died. We’ve looked after my father … everything, the experience, that has happened in our own lives ,” she says. “We’re not the same people we were….”

It’s been three years of improvising creatively in real life to make theatre, have a theatre company, figure out babysitting and daycare. Ah, and run a small business: Heights Residential employs a roster of actors and musicians, who wash household windows, clean windows, install Christmas lights.

“There is no rational way to do theatre as a blue-collar family,” shrugs Carew, who’s directing a Broken Toys production of a new Trina Davies play The Trophy Hunt this summer at the Fringe, one of five different premieres of that play across the country’s festival circuit. “Since theatre is such a big part of our lives, it’s important that Penelope be a part of that.”

It’s pressurized life, to understate the case. And the scheduling challenges are enhanced when one of the pair accepts a gig. Recently, Porter, a musical theatre triple-threat Edmonton audiences have seen in Plain Jane musicals, starred  (opposite Jake Tkaczyk) in Shadow Theatre’s production of Lungs. And it was on a scant week’s notice with the departure of the original cast. “You say Yes, and then figure out how,” she grins.

Inevitably, their sense of Betrayal, a play that unspools over 10 years has evolved: “people change, they have children, jobs change, relationships change,” says Carew. “It’s not just one character arc. It’s a decade of life.”

“Are (the characters) older and … wiser? or more hardened?” Porter muses. In the end, which is the beginning, “you see them on the cliff, at the instigating moment.” The play’s distinctive reverse chronology structure affords “the ability to look back and know where started and where you ended, to re-evaluate the moments when choices were made, and things could have been different.”

“For Pinter the future is a prison, and the present, in any moment, is infinite possibility,” says Carew. The “weird structure” of Betrayal means that actors have to “live the moment…. If actors are thinking about how one moment attaches to another, they’re not doing that.” 

The illusion of spontaneity that’s at the heart of the mystery of acting isn’t optional when time runs backwards. Porter finds a parallel in the out-of-sequence way film and TV gets shot.

“The smallest professional theatre company in Edmonton,” as Carew cheerfully describes Broken Toys, has a surprising attraction to the large. True, the company debut was a 2013 production of a two-hander “play with songs” (Midsummer, a musical romantic comedy of Scottish provenance in which Carew and Porter played strangers on an epic bender in Edinburgh). Their second outing, though, was Chekhov, Carew’s original translation of Three Sisters.

Star Killing Machine, a Broken Toys Theatre musical by Clinton Carew and Kris Schindell. Photo by Ryan Parker.

And after that, Broken Toys premiered a new 10-performer musical comedy by Carew and Kris Schindell about the end of the world, Star Killing Machine (scientists at a research facility working to develop a machine that will destroy the world). Carew argues persuasively that it makes sense for Broken Toys to combine the masters, Chekhov and Pinter and the rest, with original pieces. “If you didn’t, it’d be like building a building and never apprenticing with an architect or a sub-contractor. For me there’s a straight line between the Chekhov and Star Killing Machine.”

Outside the Fringe, Pinter is rarely seen on Edmonton mainstages (the Citadel hasn’t done any Pinter for decades). Broken Toys is partly motivated by that. Betrayal is “a different kind of challenge than I thought it would be,” says Carew of a play that is “less oblique,” more rooted in realism, than Pinter’s earlier work, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and the rest. For one thing, it was inspired by Pinter’s own life, his clandestine seven-year affair with BBC TV presenter Joan Bakewell (as he confirmed to biographer Michael Billington). 

“It’s more of a puzzle box than I thought,” says Carew of Betrayal. “There are so many things that make sense once you discover something three or four layers deep. But if you don’t go that far …. ‘Aren’t you interested in discovering clues?’ one character says to another. I think of that as a little shout-out to the director of the play.”

“You look at the script, the actual words, pauses and beats. And you try to discover what there is to discover,” he says. “There’s an ellipsis in Act I that completely changed my view of one of the characters.”

“It’s clever as hell. Almost irritatingly clever. It’s SO on the nose.”



Theatre: Broken Toys Theatre

Written by: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Clinton Carew

Starring: Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook, Cody Porter, Jake Tkaczyk

Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through June 2

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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