BWW Review: Emotion, autonomy and passion reign in Soulpepper's BETRAYAL
Considered one of Pinter's most popular works, BETRAYAL tells the story of an affair in reverse. Directed by Andrea Donaldson, this Soulpepper production remains set in the 1970s - the same era it was written in - and is a gripping thriller centered around human emotion and autonomy.
The play begins at the end of two relationships - Emma (Virgilia Griffith) reveals that she and her husband Robert (Jordan Pettle) have decided to separate, and at the same time ends her 5-year tryst with Jerry (Ryan Hollyman), who just so happens to be Robert's oldest and closest friend. From there, the story of how they all reached this conclusion is presented in a series of scenes, each one a little bit earlier in their history, until the play ends with the initial spark that set them on their path.
BETRAYAL is a dialogue-driven piece that relies on its cast to deliver strong and challenging moments throughout its 90-minute runtime, and Soulpepper's cast excels at this daunting task. Griffith is superb, her Emma wielding her intelligence and autonomy like a sharp blade with perfect precision at every turn.
Contrasting her cool, collected performance, Hollyman is the second participant in the affair with a jittery, anxious personality that works incredibly well for the character. He declares their affair a success in the first scene, claiming that no could have known it was happening, and then proceeds to disregard subtlety in his interactions with Robert for the remainder of the play. Whether he really is as obvious as he seems, or whether that opinion is just influenced by the knowledge of what's really happening, is left to the audience to decide.
Against Griffith and Hollyman, Pettle does a remarkable job as Robert. He dances around his friend and wife with an impressive balance of intensity and nonchalance. Pettle maintains a carefree attitude through most of the play, but when it's traded for anger - most noticeably in a scene between Robert and Emma in a Venetian hotel room - Pettle's barely-contained rage elevates the character to a whole new level and carries it for the remainder of the story.
The set design (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) is kept simple to great effect. Wood panelled walls, a floor covered in overlapping patterned rugs, and wooden furniture placed across the stage blends together to ensure that the people are the focus, and when combined with the vintage-inspired costumes, firmly places the story in a historical (but recent enough to understand) time and place.
All three actors have fantastic chemistry and build the story and their characters through its reverse-chronology, but the real focus is on Emma at the epicenter of the conflict. Aside from a few moments where the dialogue is overwhelmingly sexist against her character, Griffith shows Emma as a truly modern woman. It's rare to see a female character in a story like BETRAYAL be autonomous, intelligent, ambitious, and funny, but in Griffith's hands Emma is all this and more. She has her flaws, but it's refreshing to see a woman get what she wants and remain in control of her own life regardless of her past actions.
The powerhouse cast and creative team that Soulpepper has assembled for this production of BETRAYAL reflects why Pinter's writing is still celebrated 40 years past its premiere. The show program's background notes advise that audiences "pay attention to what's not said," which is solid advice given how beautiful the dialogue is - but what's not said is often seen, and watching this ensemble show how the stories of Emma, Jerry and Robert collapse and decline before bursting to life is a thrill.
BETRAYAL runs through September 22 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/betrayal/7098
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz