Interview: Max Gill, director of ‘Betrayal’

‘Betrayal’ is a pretty complicated play in some ways. Try to sum it up in one sentence?

No-one’s perception of the past, or even themselves, is ever true. 

Which aspects of the play are you trying to bring out in your production? What have you found most challenging about it?

On the one hand, we are really trying to create a true realism of action and performance that is entirely believable. On the other, we are also honouring the artificiality of the narrative structure (where the story is told largely in reverse) that asks the audience to reconsider their reliance on conventional story–telling. For this reason, the production will make overt its element of theatricality with a unified aesthetic. Memory and the consequent dangers of nostalgia is one of the play’s most fascinating themes; we are going to be using video footage of the characters’ past between scenes to help create a sense of the passing of time and an atmosphere of artificial, unsettling sentimentality.

Due to its narrative structure, the pacing of the story is not conventionally gratifying for the audience. The peaks and troughs of the story are not necessarily where one might expect. For this reason, the actors and I have to be particularly sensitive to how we are telling the story; the best way is often that which goes against your instincts.

The play is immensely rewarding for a reader or audience, but also demanding; when you know the ‘conclusion’ of the story in the first scene, what do you want to take from the rest of the play?

The characters of the play are pretty awful to one another, but they’re complex enough to seem human all the same. Do you think that the audience is led to identify or sympathise with any one character over the others? Do you have a favourite character? 

I think all the characters are pretty ghastly at most points, but they are also extremely human. They are enormous fun to explore as they can be interpreted in so many ways. For that reason, we can’t help but be invested in them.

There certainly isn’t one character that elicits our sympathy more than another; each is as culpable as the next. However, all three of them have very likeable characteristics. Jerry is a ‘pleaser’, no matter how sycophantic and slippery he may be, he will make you like him. Robert, for all his faults, provides a seductive grounding amidst the chaos.

In some ways, Emma seems to face the greatest consequences for her actions in the play; she has a volatile husband, small children and little means to support herself. Her acts of betrayal therefore have a real sense of defiance and autonomy that however selfish or unkind is undeniably admirable.

How has your interpretation of the play changed during the rehearsal process? Have the performances of the cast members caused you to rethink the way you see the characters?

When you first approach the play, it is very easy to assume it will be a rampant and sordid hour and a half of hot, hot passion. Which it isn’t. It is much more powerful than that; the psychological and social implications of betrayal are exposed in a way that is very raw.

I think some really nice character truths have been discovered in each of the actors’ different approaches to vocalizing the text, whether it is in embracing the playful nature of one’s lines, or creating a significance to a line that goes well beyond the purely verbal meaning of its words, or recognizing that although Pinter’s speech feels very naturalistic in this play, it is not a stream of consciousness, and often what characters say is highly deliberate and manipulating.

Finally, the word ‘Betrayal’ is obviously quite a loaded one, but the play doesn’t seem to make any obvious moral judgments. Do you think Pinter takes a moral stance in the play? 

I don’t think so; if there is one, it would be that there is no moral stance. In that way, the play is quite unsettling, coarse even. But I’m sure lots of people could disagree with that.