by David Robinson.
State Theatre Company of SA is bringing Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s “ruthless exploration of the complexity of the human heart”, to the Dunstan Playhouse during July and August. Betrayal is set in 1977. Emma is married to Robert. But for seven years, she’s been having an affair with Jerry, Robert’s best friend.
We talk with actor Nathan O’Keefe, who performs the role of Jerry alongside a talented cast that includes Alison Bell, John Maurice and Mark Saturno.
“We are in our first week of rehearsal, and for the first time we’ve heard the play with everyone involved.” Nathan begins. “The play opens two years after an affair has ended. An affair that Jerry, my character, has had with his best friend Robert’s wife, Emma.
“It’s amazing because Pinter is a master of subtext; he only gives you the final layer that sits on top of everything else. It’s a fascinating way to approach a play because it gives everyone involved so many choices. You have to navigate the course, because he’s not telling you what’s going on underneath.”
It must be interesting, testing your individually developed assumptions and impressions of the work when you come together and read as a team.
“He (Pinter) demands collaboration,” Nathan says. “You can’t come into this thinking you know how it’s going to be. The knowledge comes from working with each other, and surprising each other. That’s one of the great things in a play like this. It’s exciting, organic and honest. It demands truthfulness and trust.
“Geordie Brookman, our director, is so good at that. He puts a great team together, and allows discussion and collaboration. We go through uncharted territory together. It instils ownership.
“In a piece like this the audience needs to understand the complexities of these human characters. We don’t have a villain, we don’t have a hero –what we do have is a situation, some circumstances and decisions. There are flawed, brave, selfish and generous moments. That is the human condition.”
In Betrayal, you play Jerry – what does this role offer you as an artist? Are there any challenges?
“One of the great things with this play is it covers the tiredness,” Nathan explains. “It’s a hard thing to keep any relationship burning for seven years. But to keep an affair going, for that many years, must be even harder. It’s an intriguing thing to look at. With any character, you have to personalise it. You take away all the judgement –we can’t judge these characters.
“It really is one of those things that you lie awake thinking about in the middle of the night. This is one that you can’t really leave behind in the rehearsal room. It’s an exciting challenge when you are intimidated by a piece of work, when it’s hard. If we all came into this and felt that we were on top of it, we’d be doing something horribly wrong. It’s a really challenging piece to get right. And you need to get it right because the play deserves it. It’s an amazing piece of writing; it’s filled with so much honesty and truthfulness.”
Unlike film, most plays are executed in chronological order. This one is a little different. Does the reverse chronology create any issues for you as far as an actor?
“When Pinter wrote this, it was quite an innovative way of approaching work,” Nathan says. “The challenge for us, as the actors, is that the audience is presented with the consequences (of the affair) straight away. Everything is broken. Then we step back in time and look at the affair as it starts to break. The audience is given painful moments to digest, and our challenge as actors is to keep them engaged and responsive, despite already knowing the result. We can’t have them holding on to their initial judgement all the way through, otherwise they’re just spending 90 minutes with people they don’t like. They need to see these poor people, and what they’ve done to themselves, rather than thinking that they always had it coming.”
So these are flawed human beings, rather than bad people, and need to be seen that way?
“Hindsight is such a powerful thing; you are given all the answers,” Nathan concludes. “What’s happened has happened. We can’t get away with thinking that a particular person is evil, that’s too easy. This is not just a play about one betrayal. The betrayals are part of everything that happens between all of them.”
Betrayal performs at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, at various times from Fri 24 Jul until Sat 15 Aug.