This past weekend, students of the Theatre Arts and Studies program performed Betrayal, a play by Harold Pinter that explores the dynamics of an affair, in the John Astin Theatre.
The play focuses on two lovers, Emma (senior Dikachi Osaji) and Jerry (junior David Gumino) over the course of nine years, from the beginning of their relationship in 1968 to a day two years after the affair has ended. However, the story opens on the day that Jerry discovers that Robert (senior Josh Langfus) — his best friend and Emma’s husband — knows about their previous affair and proceeds backwards in time from there.
“I wouldn’t say it was difficult per se,” said Osaji when asked about the potential challenges of learning and performing a show in reverse. “[James Glossman, the director] had a very good idea, which was the first time, the first couple of times we did it in its entirely, we ran it backwards. We did it from the earliest, first chronological event — which is actually the last scene — up until the first scene... which really helped with our character development and why we’re saying what we’re saying.”
The audience doesn’t have that luxury, and the main enjoyment of the show is the act of understanding the story, of slotting events into the timeline and realizing just how the scene currently being performed affects the characters across the earlier ones. There’s a biting moment late in the play where Emma corrects Jerry when he misremembers an encounter between their two families. It seems innocuous until you remember that she had to correct him again earlier (from the audience’s perspective) in the play, and suddenly the echo takes on a much more painful tint.
As a matter of fact, most of the play centers on the idea of knowledge: who knows about the affair and who knows that they know about the affair and so on and so on. The first few times that we see Robert and Jerry interact are incredibly tense, since the audience and Robert know about the affair while Jerry does not know that we possess that knowledge.
Slowly over the course of the play, the tension is replaced by a somber sadness as the narrative shifts to the happier moments that occurred early on in the affair. We see the flat rented by the two lovers — abandoned early in the show when the affair falls apart — become filled with love and affection; we see the relationship between Robert and Jerry shift away from the bitterness that pervaded their initial interactions toward true friendship. The enjoyment of understanding the characters is replaced by the sorrow that their happiness won’t last and that they’ll turn into the bitter characters that begin and/or end the play.
In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1983, Pinter emphasized the important role that knowledge takes in the play, stating that, “The shape of the whole thing was what interested me primarily — starting in the present and ending at the beginning. I wanted to explore how it would feel, for myself as well as for the audience, to observe a love affair in which, at every moment, we all knew more than the participants.”
Overall, the cast more than excelled at playing with and exploring that theme. Osaji and Gumino did an excellent job of developing the relationship between their characters, so that the emotional core of the story hit home, even in reverse.
Likewise, Langfus’ portrayal of Robert really heightened the tension in the earlier scenes, making sure that his pointed comments always kept the audience and the other characters a little on edge. Finally, though only in a single scene, sophomore Sebastian Durfee was absolutely hilarious, providing a much-needed burst of levity as the show transitioned into its more bittersweet and romantic scenes.
All in all, it was a truly excellent performance done through a thought-provoking and interesting narrative explored by a very talented cast. “We’re very excited and very happy that people are coming out to see it,” said Osaji. “It’s been a two month journey since we started — from auditions to putting it up — and it has been fantastic.”