By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I think I thought you knew,” says a man to his oldest friend in one of In one of the most quietly unnerving scenes you’re ever likely to see onstage.
In Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s infinitely clever and intricate 1978 masterpiece, who knows what, and when, are under constant and queasy revision by three characters caught in a web of their own making.
The first thing you notice about Broken Toys Theatre’s riveting production, a rare and welcome production of this great play, is just how intimate, how close to the bone, is the web of betrayals it spins.
Betrayal is the story, inevitably three-sided, of a affair between married lovers, Robert’s wife Emma and his best friend Jerry. And since, famously, it’s told in reverse chronology, from the end back to the beginning, the characters are in a perpetual state of guarded (and or cagey) watchfulness, tuned to the nuances of what’s said and what isn’t. Its language, fragmentary and dry, is the sound of people alert to concealment. Its silences and pauses between the lines are a language too: the sound of people listening, thinking, reassessing.
Fiddling with a wedding ring speaks volumes. But is “playing squash” a code, an indicator? What about “having lunch”?
It’s all about the question of how much you can say when you’re not actually saying anything. And Carew’s production and his cast — Elena Porter, Cody Porter and Chris W. Cook — are on it. Porter’s lovely, grave Emma, who’s a gallery owner, smiles and laughs only occasionally. And when she does, it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds. There’s a reserve about her; her ground-zero expression, to which she returns, is watchful. She never stops holding her breath.
Cody Porter’s superb Robert, the betrayed husband, has a kind of confident bristle and edge about him, an English defence system that is not without wit. But in crucial scenes, you see it crumble; you feel his wounds, his pain.
As Jerry, the book agent who betrays his best friend and then has enough gall to air a sense of betrayal when he learns that nobody has told him that Robert knows about the affair, Cook’s performance is angled brightly, humorously; there’s a cockiness about him. His expression at rest, and under duress, is an amused grimace of a shrug.
Carew’s bare-bones staging is astutely, and wittily done. The set, like the past, is always under construction and re-construction. A table and chairs arrive (courtesy of Jake Tkaczyk, who gets a very funny scene as an Italian waiter) and disappear. So does the play’s major tangible symbol of betrayal, the bed. Entrances and exits overlap slightly: the characters inhabit each other’s thoughts and fears.
And, in the end, you have a sense of what lies beneath the complexities of betrayal. It’s terror. The terror of not really knowing the people you know best. Nothing can be a casual throwaway about betrayal; everything has to be sorted through, every possible permutation and ripple analyzed. Nothing is innocuous.
“How’s everything?” Jerry asks Emma at the outset, when the affair has been over for years. “Not too bad,” she says. By the time you get to the end, which is the beginning and you see how it all began but might not have, you can’t help returning to that exchange. Over and over.
In that exchange is a whole play, and a thrillingly tense one. In this absorbing production, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss.
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: through June 2
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca