Terms of Betrayal
Betrayal breaks out afresh in the Lion City
By Richard Lord
"Is it possible to succeed without any act of betrayal?" the legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir once asked. Well, at least when it comes to literary and cinematic efforts, that would seem to be rather difficult.
Betrayal is one of the central themes of literature and drama. Consider the long roll of evidence: betrayal plays a major role in Gilgamesh, in the Mahabarata, in both Testaments of the Bible, in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and... well, I think we have made our point. The theme of betrayal has a damn long pedigree. And it continues to spawn significant drama in works for the stage, page and screen.
For instance, it was a major theme in two of the more heralded productions of the last quarter: Doug Wright's Quills and, not surprisingly, Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Both of these shows appeared at the DBS Arts Centre, home of the Singapore Repertory Theatre. The Pinter piece was an SRT production while Quills was another of the visits to the DBS by the Luna-Id troupe.
Now, when you are dealing with a theme whose treatment goes back to the very beginnings of known literature, you have to handle it in some fresh ways to make it seem real and not banal. Pinter, this year's Literature Nobel Prize laureate, did this by toying with the play's structure while Wright did it by nicely complicating the terms of betrayal.
Betrayal was one of Pinter's last brilliant plays. No, let me correct that: Betrayal was the last brilliant full-length Pinter play. (His only real triumphs in the last quarter-century have been shorter works or screenplays.) The play looks at a love triangle involving Robert, a London-based publisher; Jerry, his best friend and a successful literary agent; and Emma, Robert's lovely wife. The story of an adulterous love affair with one person sleeping with the spouse of a best friend is, of course, a tale oft told. It is a rather obvious illicit pairing, in fact: the spouse of a best friend is forbidden fruit sweet enough for the temptation, close enough for the picking. Moreover, the perfidy involved in sabotaging the friendship makes for good narrative fodder.
Pinter makes his dissection of this affair more interesting by telling the story backwards: The first scene finds Jerry and Emma having a drink in a pub years after the demise of their relationship. There, Emma casually mentions that she has told her husband about their affair. The next scene throws Jerry and Robert together that evening to discuss this radical shift in their relationship. From there the play keeps hopping one step backwards all the way to the point at Robert and Emma's Christmas party where a drunken Jerry confesses to Emma that he finds her truly beautiful and is truly in love with her.
Pinter did not invent this back-to-front device, but he employs it quite well in Betrayal. By reversing the usual direction of temporal narrative, Pinter defuses the force of inevitable thrust (when everything in a narrative is irreversible, all the steam runs out of its inevitability), but he gains the implicit force of each scene. We know what each scene has led to, so we are more focused on what happens in that scene. Pinter draws us into the core of each scene and turns us into something like amateur CSI officers of the soul.
But Pinter, clever landscaper of the human soul that he is, does not serve up a simple, one-sided betrayal here. In that crucial second scene, just as Jerry fumbles an apology to his friend, we discover that Robert has actually known about the affair for a number of years; Emma had told her husband about the two of them years before, while the lovers were still in the throes of their passion. Jerry's best friend and his lover then kept him in the dark about this essential fact, thus betraying his trust in them. (Of course, poor Jerry cannot claim a lot of solid ground for moral outrage here.) The pungent mix of chemistry thus concocted makes for a most engrossing evening of theatre, especially in the way Harold Pinter, the Old Master, was once able to deliver a theatrical gem.
(Admittedly, we do also hear in some of the lines a few notes of Pinter parody that, in large numbers, were to mar many of his later efforts. For example, as the affair is heading for the rocks, one lover protests: "But I don't think we don't love each other.")
The SRT rendition of this masterwork was commendable, even though it held the promise of being much more. The SRT had imported the three main actors for this production. (The fourth player, a waiter, is nothing more than a supernumerary. If the performer had called in sick one evening, they probably could have requisitioned a real waiter from one of the nearby restaurants and he could have walked through the part without doing much damage to the show.)
Jerry was played by a long-time Broadway figure with a bundle of big Broadway awards and nominations under his arms, Robert by an actor with a long, impressive roster of key roles on Broadway, in the West End as well as radio, TV and film. But the biggest name of all was Shabana Azmi, a certified Bollywood superstar, whose name alone was sure to draw large crowds to the DBS Arts Centre. And it did, it is good to say.
But Azmi was also the main reason why this production lacked the power it could have had. Azmi certainly brought elegance and seasoned beauty to the role of Emma, but she exuded almost no allure or sex appeal. It was a cold beauty up on the stage, a grace to be admired, not lusted after. This made Jerry's act of betrayal difficult to understand, if not swallow. Why risk so much unless the force of the temptation was too great to be resisted? (Jerry, it should be noted, is not a bed-hopping bastard looking to add another conquest.)
For instance, that groundwork-laying first scene should give the emotional key the show is to be played in. But here we didn't see or feel the bitterness, the sense of loss in the relationship. I found myself asking, "O death of passion, where is thy sting?"
Not that Peter Friedman as Jerry did not try to make the illicit pairing work. Friedman brought a good store of anxious energy to the role, as if he were trying to bridge the emotional gap between his character and Azmi's. He also brought a high level of competence to his performance, being quite credible as an Englishman with mid-Atlantic tendencies. (Friedman is actually a consummate New Yorker.)
But Friedman's Jerry remained unable to connect with Azmi's Emma at that deepest level where passion passes all understanding. Azmi was a strong presence, but she seemed to have been reciting the lines of Betrayal while performing some other play. (She would have a quite good Hedda Gabler, for instance, or perhaps a Claire Zachanassian from Dürrenmatt's The Visit.) But this Emma's lack of that fire that stirs about her as she stirs denied this production the spark that truly makes the play work.
The third side of this scalene triangle was strong enough, with Simon Jones offering a charmingly mannered Robert. This Robert resembles other recognisable denizens of Pinter's universe: his outward appearance and his words are a shield to hide the person deep within. Robert's conversation is intentionally elliptical as he attempts to pick at the edges of what he what he wants to say and what he wants to find out from others. This is the way Pinter wrote the part and Jones fit into that mould quite convincingly.
Jones came off as the kind of upper-middle-class Englishman who has a stiff upper lip for a heart. Jones was also quite good as a drunk in a key Italian restaurant scene. He realises, as many local actors still do not, that in real life, a drunk rarely tries to come off as drunk: they usually try to effect a semblance of sobriety, but simply cannot. It is the awkward attempt which makes a drunk believable on stage, and this is just what Jones delivered - quite nicely, thank you.
Director Wang Meiyin seems to have taken a workmanlike approach to the play, largely concentrating on character-building and the delivery of the text. (These two things are more intricately bound in Pinter than in many other playwrights.) There was little eye-catching stage business to draw attention from the characters and their conversations. And I must say this is an approach that can only be applauded when dealing with a play like Betrayal.
Nevertheless, there was a series of slips where a sharp directorial eye would have been more helpful. For one example: a Scotch on the rocks was served sans ice. Also, during Jerry and Robert's exchange of confessions in the second scene, the two set on the opposite arms of one chair, whose seat was covered with books. This was a somewhat uncomfortable image - for the actors as well as the audience.
The set was also quite minimal, allowing the play to switch quickly and without much bother from one locale to another. At times, I even thought it might have been two minimal, suggesting expediency and denying us a better sense of place. One astute critic at another local online publication has already described how the white background worked against many of the scenes, so I will not spend much space on this other than to concur that another colour choice would have served the overall tone of the play much better. (The production was designed by Phillip Engleheart, brought in from London for this show.)
Working with the problems posed by the set, the lighting (designed by Yo Shao Ann) was more or less functional, though it functioned rather nicely, at times slipping in a small triumph. For instance, the Venice scene featured good lighting to suggest the insouciant cheerfulness of a hotel that catered to upper-income tourists. The look served as a salutary contrast to the mood of the characters here. (This is the scene where Robert finally pulls out Emma's confession that she is involved sexually with Jerry.)
This production ends with Jerry grabbing Emma's arm in the final scene in the bedroom. Emma turns; they stare at each other for a long time, after which the lights go on far upstage revealing, behind the scrim, furniture from earlier scenes piled up. Weird, unsettling music accompanies visual effect. I am not quite sure what was intended with such an effect. Perhaps the severe threat to their two comfortably bourgeois homes that such an affair would entail? If so, this shows the influence of the Pinter-Joseph Losey film, Accident, and its concluding shot. But I do not think it added much to the production or our feel for the characters.
The French have this special niche in their pantheon of beloved artists for what they call monstres sacrés, or sacred monsters. They are fascinated with writers, painters, theatre-makers who are psychotic; if they're criminally insane to boot, it's that much the better.
Included in this grouping would be Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Tristan Corbiere, Jean Genet. But two of the most famous of these monstres sacrés would have to be the Marquis de Sade and Antonin Artaud.
De Sade, of course, wrote novels and stories extolling the virtues of sexual depravity and lent his name to the terms sadism and sadist. Artaud, like de Sade a long-time resident of an insane asylum, was a writer-cum-actor-cum-director who developed the theory of the Theatre of Cruelty (influenced by Balinese and other Eastern theatre forms). Both men apparently believed at some point (though it may have been at the depths of their insanity) that by pursuing experience at its furthest extremes, we could somehow arrive at a higher truth and richer lives. Both also felt that shock and schlock were prime ways to get people out of their boxed-in ways of thinking and feeling and onto the path of finding the core truths about the human soul.
(Keep in mind that de Sade and Artaud did not march together in lockstep down that path of liberating experiences. Artaud believed that all forms of sexual activity, including manual self-fulfilment, were detrimental to creative activity and should be avoided as much as possible. De Sade felt that sex, of all kinds, should be engaged in whenever and wherever possible. Or, better still, wherever impossible.)
Twice in the last half-century, dramatists have decided that yoking Artaud's dramatic theories to the tale of de Sade's involuntary stay at the Charenton Hospital for the Criminally Insane was a natural pairing. On both occasions, the playwrights were rewarded with astounding successes: Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade and Douglas Wright's Quills. These successes were both critical and commercial victories.
In Quills, Wright looked briefly at de Sade's last days in Charenton and then largely fictionalised them. (The marquis was not murdered, for instance, but died of natural causes. He also apparently wrote and produced various theatrical productions there, using other inmates, until deteriorating health denied him the powers to do so. He did spend the last 11 years of his life in Charenton, giving up the ghost in 1814.)
But de Sade himself is not really the central character of this play. That honour belongs to the Abbé de Coulmier, a Catholic priest who headed up the Charenton institute for many years. Like the Marquis, the Abbé was a real historical figure, celebrated in his time for his enlightened directorship of the asylum - which apparently included encouraging de Sade in his writing and staging of plays.
But in Wright's wildly fictionalised version of the story, the Abbé, buckling under pressure from Charenton's new chief physician, abandons his enlightened ways and starts treating de Sade more and more cruelly. Worse, this cruelty is employed mainly as a way of curbing the latter's literary excesses. As the play's focus pulls more tightly on the cleric, we witness his internal conflicts as he betrays the Marquis, his enlightened principles and even his Christian tenets as he tries to control the feverish literary output of the Marquis. (Deprived of his quill pens, ink and paper, the Marquis continues to pour out his scurrilous stories, using first red wine, then his blood, then his own excrement.)
The irony here is that in trying to put a stop to de Sade's writings and real-life excesses, the Abbé is forced to use more and more of de Sade's own methods. Before his final 'conversion' to de Sade's philosophy, the priest becomes a full-fledged masochist as well as a sadist. (As de Sade himself has been for much of the play.)
I actually find this prize-winning play rather over-rated. Sure the language here is rich and flavourful (maybe even a little too much of both), the script packs an ample supply of dark wit, and the Artaudian (or, if you prefer, Grand Guignol) effects make for some powerful dramatic moments, but it is not quite the classic some would make it out to be.
Other than grossly distorting history so as to pressgang historical figures into making his case (as a fellow named Shakespeare often did), Wright in the stage version of Quills presents a universe that is too neatly black and white. And, of course, too slanted to the side Wright is obviously rooting for. I thought Wright's 2000 screenplay for Quills, for which he justly garnered an Oscar and other nominations, was a far better work. There, the complexities of character and the sharpness of the conflicts were much better laid out.
Here, Wright seems too constricted by the limits of the stage to tell the story he was obviously capable of. The dramatist divides the staging field between the Chief Physician's office and de Sade's quarters (later cell), with a little space left in the middle for other business. (This other business includes a nightmare wake, two frisky lovers amorously writing a kiss-off letter to the lady's cuckolded husband, and rattlings from the truly insane amongst de Sade's neighbours.) Unlike in the film, in the stage version, de Sade and his nemesis over at the director's office never confront each other face to face, which deprives us of some of the story's most frightful tension.
More, the play is unbalanced. The first half is fairly solid, with each well-written scene making a clear and persuasive point. The second act is packed with action that might even have had Artaud twisting in his seat: the murder of a young woman; a priest's fantasies about copulating with the corpse; the vicious Chief Physician losing his wife; de Sade losing his tongue, his fingers, finally his head; the criminal betrayal of the Abbé by his ostensible colleague, the Chief Physician. Yet somehow this act manages to drag. Finally, the play presents a lot of challenges for any theatre group.
The Luna-id production of this very difficult material represents another quill - excuse me, feather - in the hat for this resourceful company. As directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, this Quills was commendably sharp. It was also as textured and complex as Wright's script allows it to be.
As she has demonstrated before, Scott-Blackhall is a director who has proper respect for the text. She sees her first duty as bringing the text to life as faithfully as she can. Her second duty, which she fulfilled well here, is to make the show an engaging evening for the audience - visually, audibly, emotionally and intellectually engaging.
Again, as in her award-winning direction of Luna-id's The Physicists, Scott-Blackhall paid much attention to the look of this show. The stage at the DBS Arts Centre might seem too small for the Grand Guignol antics of Quills, but the director and her team made it work fairly well. Indeed, the staging scored a number of strong visuals, especially in the second act (where we needed something to distract us from the flagging text).
The set (by Sebastian Zeng) was split with a ramp running down the middle. On stage right, we had de Sade's cell and other parts of the inmates' quarters. Stage left was highlighted by the Chief Physician's office. The playing spaces were asymmetrical, even partially misshapen. This was an apt metaphor for the world we find here in the asylum.
The lighting effects (by Suven Chan) were particularly praiseworthy. Not only did they help to produce some of those wonderful visuals that enhanced certain scenes; at times, they became almost a show-within-a-show themselves. To wit: a central pillar was fitted with red lights which, at a key point in the show, suddenly illuminated to give the set an unsettling, infernal appearance. Flickering fairy lights elsewhere served as flickering flames. Throughout, the lighting effects guided us the twists and turns of the action.
Darren Ng's soundscape also contributed in its own small way to the success of this show. For just one example, when the paper and quills were taken from de Sade to keep him from writing, eerie music floated through the air, giving us the sense of something gone terribly wrong.
Not all the effects here were quite as laudable. The wrapped dummy which dropped from the ceiling at the end of the first act (and was reminiscent of those filling the entire set in Luna-id's One Flea Spare) came off as too determined a grab for effect. Sure, it got gasps, then laughs, but ultimately, it only merits a shrug of the shoulders.
But lighting, set design, music, the period costumes - these are just the externals. The heart of the play is the text and the characters and how these are played. The Luna-id production gets fairly high marks here as well.
The role of de Sade can be an open-net goal for an actor blessed with presence, energy and a taste for risk. All of these Rehaan Engineer has more than a fair share of and he used them quite admirably in giving us a compelling de Sade.
It is a mistake, I think, to make the Marquis too sympathetic a character, and though there were a few times in the first act when Engineer bent the bar a bit too much to make this character likeable, most of the time he succeeded in striking the right chord. That chord has both sweet tones and discordant scratches within it. Fittingly, this Marquis attracted us, then repulsed us within a turn of a phrase or a shift of mood.
Engineer proved most effective in Act 2 when de Sade, in full emotional retreat, does command more of our sympathy. Here, he played the marquis as something akin to an addict undergoing cold turkey - shivering, twitching with his own vulnerability. (Perhaps Engineer, stripped to the skin at this point, was aided by the air-conditioning, but I think it was more his instincts and fine acting ability.) Oh yes: these were the heralded "full nudity scenes" that had many people talking up this show before and during the run. But there was nothing at all erotic about these scenes, only pathos and repugnance at what de Sade had been brought down to.
As strong as Engineer was in his role, his performance was actually slightly out-classed by Dan Jenkins' de Coulmier. This is appropriate, as the Abbé is not only the central character of the drama, but undergoes the wider range of emotional tug and tear as the play grinds on towards its fitful conclusion. (Self-doubt and self-recriminations always make for more interesting explorations than something like the blustery self-possession of a de Sade.)
The Abbé's pain has far sharper contours and greater dimensions than de Sade's and Jenkins did a laudable job at making this pain palpable for us. His face became a kind of road map to damnation and then back out again. One example of strong acting providing a potent image was where Jenkins hunched over after his final betrayal of the Marquis, a man half-broken by his own inhuman act.
The other major character in this drama is Doctor Royer-Collard, the new Chief Physician determined to put his heavy mark on the asylum. (Royer-Collard has little sympathy for enlightened theories of treating the insane.) Lim Kay Tong plays the Doctor as stiff, mannered and officious; obnoxiously so, in all three cases. This is pretty close to the way Doug Wright has written the Doctor, so it is not too fair to criticise Kay Tong for playing him this way. Still, he could have textured the Doctor's socially respectable depravity a little better.
However, Kay Tong was best when his character shed his aloofness and turned irate, which is when his own strong acting talents were allowed free rein. Here the veteran actor served the script quite well.
The women's parts were all minor, serving to swell a progress of two. (Yes, the pun here was partially intended.) "Women are weak in constancy," says one character in the play, and the playwright does not do much to undermine this sentiment.
Karen Tan did seem slightly out of place as the Marquis' aggrieved wife, Renée Pelagie. Pelagie serves mainly as the embodiment of bourgeois hypocrisy and while Tan did capture something of this quality, there was more surface than substance coming through.
Mariel Reyes did fairly well in the more important role of the Charenton seamstress and the Marquis' volunteer chambermaid. Although she lacked some of the youthful innocence of Madeleine, Reyes managed a reasonably sympathetic portrait of this multiple victim of a dishonest society. (Reyes did have a little trouble fixing her accent, which from time to time coursed between Ireland and North America.)
Janice Koh did nicely in a brief turn as the Chief Physician's unfaithful wife, all gushing fun, libido and sweet contempt for her fustian husband. Andy Tear also garners praise for handling a pair of smaller roles well - one of de Sade's fellow inmates as well as the architect who comes to design the Doctor's new mini-chateau, then gets designs on the Doc's wife, whom he ends up running off with.
Although the Luna-id cast was not able to capture the world of early 18th century France with the behavioural precision the Singapore Rep cast brought to late 20th century London, they could claim a more satisfying grasp of the passions their play called for. Nonetheless, both productions showed the course of betrayal as a solid ground for dramatic depiction.