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Review: New Soulpepper staging lights few real sparks in Pinter classic (Includes first-hand account)

It may be too harsh to suggest that Soulpepper “screws up” its new remount of Betrayal, which opened last night, but this version of Pinter’s one-acter about a seven-year love affair doesn’t have the power or tension that it should. One reason is a disappointing performance by Ryan Hollyman, which I found lacking in nuance and subtlety. Another reason is director Andrea Donaldson’s puzzling decision to use a big, detailed set of browns and greys that looks like a large, wood-panelled 1970s living room, even though the play is set in multiple locations. A more scaled-back approach would have sufficed, but Ken MacKenzie’s set is fully walled and furnished, with plants in the corners, a bar at one side and a floor inexplicably wallpapered in rectangular carpets. It’s distracting – like staging Waiting for Godot inside Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Betrayal is, of course, Pinter’s famous “backwards play” – beginning at the end, with married literary agent Jerry (Hollyman) and art-gallery owner Emma (Virgilia Griffith) meeting two years after their breakup in 1977, and ending with the beginning of their affair in 1968. (The movie Memento used a similar idea for mystery purposes, and Seinfeld memorably spoofed the concept too.) Rounding out the threesome is the cuckold and Emma’s husband, publisher Robert (Jordan Pettle, who’s good).

The reverse chronology may seem like merely a clever gimmick to Betrayal newcomers, but it opens up a world of new meanings and subtexts that would be less surprising or interesting in a normal depiction. By going backwards in time, we understand these people’s behaviour from a completely different viewpoint, as we see events alluded to earlier – or “later” – like the trip to Venice when Robert learns of the affair, and Emma’s pregnancy, and a never-seen author with whom Emma later has another affair. And the structure gradually reveals multiple meanings in the title: these three characters not only betray each other, but also themselves and their ideals.

It’s still a unique achievement in play-writing after four decades, and Soulpepper has staged it before – nearly twenty years ago, in a production directed by Daniel Brooks. Donaldson’s version is largely passable, but sometimes unconvincing. The opening (closing?) scene, in which Emma and Jerry sit at a table at downstage right, is set in a pub, but I’m not sure how clear that is (at first) to audience members unfamiliar with the play; aside from a faint sound effect of other patrons, it might as well be in a residential dining room. By contrast, a later scene with Jerry and Robert in an Italian restaurant is more believable.

Hollyman has done good work elsewhere, but his Jerry doesn’t arouse much sympathy; he seems a little stiff at times, and his surprised outbursts in early scenes feel forced. And while I admit I’m no expert on dialects, his accent (to my Canuck ears) appears to swerve randomly between posh London and an odd, nasal Liverpudlian rhythm. You may feel sometimes as if you’re listening to George Harrison’s private life. While Betrayal is generally set in London, it’s worth wondering if the fake English accents are even necessary; the 2000 Soulpepper staging did without them. Still, Pettle gives a strong, intelligent performance, sometimes with suppressed anger hiding under a polite manner, and Griffith believably portrays Emma’s reverse journey from thirtysomething disillusionment to youthful bliss.

Betrayal is a brilliant play, and I wanted to like this production more. Maybe it works best if you’re unfamiliar with the play, so you can focus more on Pinter’s craft and less on the weaknesses of the production. If that’s not too backwards an approach.

Betrayal runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 22.

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