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Huntington’s Betrayal a Mix of Guilt, Love, and Lies

Pinter play marks a homecoming for CFA alum

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What is the worst part of an affair—the deception surrounding it, the self-absorption and guilt that inevitably occur, or the secrets that people hold from one another?

That question is central to Betrayal, Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter’s 1978 drama chronicling the passionate seven-year affair between Emma and Jerry, a married man who’s also the best friend of Emma’s husband, Robert. Each of the characters betrays the others and themselves in surprising and unexpected ways as they explore the intricacies of love, guilt, and duplicity in this 80-minute Huntington Theatre Company production, running through December 9 at the BU Theatre.

Made into a film, starring Jeremy Irons, in 1983, Betrayal is regarded as one of Pinter’s greatest—and most accessible—plays. Inspired by Pinter’s extramarital affair with a BBC newscaster, the play is notable for its use of reverse chronology, opening after the affair has ended and darting back and forth in time.

Betrayal is directed by Maria Aitken, who helmed last year’s critically praised Huntington production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives and also directed the company’s 2007 production of The 39 Steps. The play stars Mark H. Dold (CFA’86) as Robert, Alan Cox as Jerry, Gretchen Egolf as Emma, and Luis Negrón as the waiter. Aitken brings a wealth of personal and professional knowledge to the play, having been a friend of the late playwright’s, who had directed her early in her career.

Mark H. Dold as Robert, Huntington Theatre Group production of Betrayal by playwright Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter

Betrayal marks Dold’s first return to the Huntington since graduation. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For Dold, this production marks his first return to the BU Theatre since graduating from BU. In the intervening decades, he has performed in numerous off-Broadway Shakespeare productions, has appeared on Broadway in Alan Aykbourn’s comedy Absurd Person Singular, and has made guest appearances on numerous TV shows, including Gossip Girl, Law & Order, and All My Children. For the past two years, Dold starred in the acclaimed off-Broadway drama Freud’s Last Session, playing C. S. Lewis, who vigorously debates the existence of God with Sigmund Freud days before the psychotherapist’s death.

BU Today recently sat down with Dold to discuss Betrayal, Pinter’s artistry, and his long-awaited homecoming.

BU Today: The London Telegraph called Betrayal “the greatest and most moving of all Pinter’s plays.” Does that place any extra pressure on you as an actor?

Dold: There is a lot of pressure whenever you’re doing a really famous play. But I’m not going to go down that road. That’s just too much. Also, you want to make it new. You want it to be fresh. You want it to be a play for people that, even if they’ve seen it before, you want it to seem like they haven’t. You have to, in a strange way, cut the legacy off and do it as if it’s the first time you’ve ever done it.

Betrayal comes in many forms in this play. Could you talk about that?

There’s betrayal all over this script, and Maria Aitken has been asking us to track all of that too. What is the ultimate betrayal? Is it the wife cheating on the husband? Is it the husband having known about the affair, but never really discussing it with his friend? Is it the friend having an affair with his best friend’s wife? There are betrayals, there are lies, there’s deception all over the place. You never really know what the truth is. It’s like looking at a jewel in different ways, and everybody’s perspective is different. My truth isn’t necessarily my wife’s truth, isn’t necessarily the lover’s truth—which makes it interesting too, because I think people want to identify who is the wronged party. But I don’t really think there is any one—it’s everyone.

Has playing Robert made you understand how someone might not see, or willfully choose to ignore, betrayal?

One of the interesting things that Maria was telling us about London and these types of people, who are middle to upper middle class in the late ’60s and into the ’70s, was that adultery was not as extraordinary a thing as we might think it today. If the husband was doing it, the odds were that the wife was doing it too. The fact that Robert’s wife is having an affair isn’t the issue as much as that it’s with his best friend. It could basically be any Tom, Dick, or Harry, but the fact that she picked his best friend—his quote unquote soul mate, someone he’s actually known for 25 years—is what’s really devastating.

This play is based on Pinter’s seven-year affair with BBC journalist Joan Bakewell. Did you read about the life of the playwright or Bakewell’s betrayed husband to prepare for the role?

No, I didn’t. I know the play’s highly autobiographical, but I can’t think about that. I can’t think about Harold Pinter. It’s not about him for me. It’s about Robert, and Emma, and their best friend, Jerry. So maybe that’s naïve of me. It was almost like when I was playing C. S. Lewis. You think about him just enough to support you, but then you have to play the words that are written, the story that is written, the music of the script that is written. I can’t be thinking offstage, what would Pinter do? What would Harold say? Although Maria does say that even though many people do think Jerry is Harold, a lot of the way Robert speaks is Harold. So Pinter’s spread himself over both male characters. One of them has his voice, and the other one is living his circumstances.

Alan Cox as Jerry, Mark H. Dold as Robert, Gretchen Egolf as Emma, Huntington Theatre Group production of Betrayal by playwright Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter

Cox (from left), Dold, and Egolf are caught in a web of love, lies, and guilt in Pinter’s Betrayal. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What has it been like for you as an actor switching from the dense and rapid-fire dialogue of Freud’s Last Session to Betrayal’s silence between lines, which takes on a life of its own?

It’s been fascinating. Actors usually get line notes after every run-through. Here we also get pause and silence notes to make sure we are honoring all of that. It’s the art of Pinter, it’s beautiful music, it’s a score. I treat most scripts as if they’re a score. But this one, it’s so specific. You can’t deviate. And when you do, you can feel yourself not telling the story in the best way. When you really honor those silences and pauses and ellipses, the subtext of the story—what’s really going on underneath, who these people really are, how they really feel—starts to crack through.

Most of this play occurs in reverse chronology. How does that time construct benefit the substance of the play?

It takes what could be—on the surface—ordinary events and makes them more extraordinary by seeing how they unfolded. Being a New Yorker, you see people on the train who are homeless or look a little bit down on their luck, and I’ve always wondered, how did that person get there? Where they are isn’t necessarily the key, but how they arrive there is. That’s the spin Pinter has put on the play. The outcome is the outcome, but in many ways isn’t it more interesting to see the journey as opposed to the destination?

You performed with the Huntington as a student, but this is the first time you’ve returned to Boston professionally since graduation. What is it like to be back?

I couldn’t have waited for a better moment. The last time I was on the Huntington’s stage was when I received my diploma. And as everybody was filing out after the ceremony and rushing to find their mothers and fathers and grandmothers, I took a brief moment and ran back out on the stage as they were turning off the lights. It sounds ridiculous, but I said a few words to the theater gods, which basically amounted to: if this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, being a real professional actor, bring me back to this theater one day so I will know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

It took a hell of a long time. My partner said to me, ‘So now can you stop complaining? Now can you stop asking, what am I doing with my life? Because you got your message from the theater gods.’”

Betrayal runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through December 9. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $15, and student rush tickets are also available for $15. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) and are also eligible for a special subscribers discount rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

Mark H. Dold will speak at the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave., in the TheatreLab, Room 104, on Friday, November 16, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. The question-and-answer session is free and open to the public.

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Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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