Election Section

A Backwards-Told Tale Definitely Worth Seeing

By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday July 02, 2004

Does anybody know a nice sophisticated term to substitute for “Wow!”? Aurora Theatre’s current production of Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal deserves the best: the very best. The most frequently performed of all the famous British playwright’s works, it’s hard to imagine a more effective presentation than the one we have right here in Berkeley.  

Producing Director Tom Ross has guided a top-notch cast through a sterling production of Pinter’s backward-told tale of a marital affair. It’s a seemingly straigh tforward narrative of the seven-year relationship between Jerry and Emma, his best friend’s wife. It’s told, however, from the end to the beginning. The play opens with the couple meeting in a pub two years after their affair has ended and works its way back to the drunken pass which started the whole thing off. 

It’s a “seemingly straight-forward narrative” only because you may well find yourself engaged in vigorous debate after the play is over about what was really happening with these people. Just as in life, in this drama things don’t always add up quite the way people say they are.  

For example, both couples have children, which appears to be the unspoken rationale for the fact that Jerry and Emma don’t even discuss divorcing their spouses and marr ying each other. Curiously, though, the point is really made only by the stage setting; the production is opened by a background video showing little kids at play. But the most effective, as well as poignant, reminder of the affair’s potential damage is probably the assortment of children’s toys dangling from the center of the staging area.  

Carrie Paff and Christopher Marshall play the two lovers, and Charles Shaw Robinson is Robert, the cuckolded husband. (Jerry’s wife, Judith—who never appears in the play—is dismissed as irrelevant on the basis that she is a physician and “absorbed in her work and the children.”) Another factor in the situation is the concern the couple would presumably have felt toward Robert. Whatever his wife may feel about their m arriage—it’s not awfully clear—he and Jerry have been closest friends for decades with an intimate professional relationship. For such articulate people, it seems surprising that there is almost no soul-searching and neither Emma nor Jerry show any reluct ance to enter into the affair.  

In all fairness, it should be pointed out that these people are supposed to be middle-class Britishers, a group not much known for throwing their emotions about in public. (The accents are so well done that you could spend significant time prowling through the biographies in the program in a fruitless effort to determine which side of the Atlantic the actors themselves come from.) 

Jerry seems to have harbored strong feelings for Emma for a very long time, which come out o nly when he gets drunk at a party. It’s Emma’s willingness to respond to his drunken pass—since she is played as apparently sober and quite surprised by his behavior—that ultimately leaves her the most unknown character among the three. What is her motiva tion? Is she actually in love with Jerry? Or has she simply grabbed at a chance to enrich an emotional life grown stale from familiarity? 

You could even argue (and “argue” is the operative word) that Jerry, the best friend, expresses far more concern for Robert than does Emma, Robert’s wife. When Robert confronts Jerry (and Robert’s pain is evident), at one point Jerry quietly acknowledges, “And I was your best friend.”  

No heroics. No drama. And the closeness between them appears to be based on a very real compatability; even at this horrendous moment, Jerry catches himself trying to get Robert’s opinion about another writer. 

But what about Emma? Does she lie to Jerry about when she told Robert about the affair? Why does her marriage end two years aft er she has broken it off? 

This apparently simple and very human drama—albeit extremely well written and performed—becomes increasingly complex as you think about it. 

It’s definitely worth seeing.