Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Betrayal and Kristin Scott Thomas

I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in forty five minutes as prep for the new production at London’s Comedy Theatre. On the page, the dialogue looks like mental scratchings. Language pared down to the bare essentials, operating at the outskirts of anything we might commonly recognise as human discourse. Pinter’s tics and pauses carrying the terrifying freight of unspoken meaning. It is in all that is left unsaid or suggested that we complete the picture of ourselves. As Wittgenstein famously put it, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

In Betrayal, communication has been eroded by the failure of human beings to act personally and love faithfully. Infidelity, lies and unspoken knowledge have damaged the channels of human relationships, leaving the participants of this ménage a trois tongue tied by their actions:

You’re looking very pretty.
Really? Thank you. I’m glad to see you.
So am I. I mean to see you.
You think of me sometimes?
I think of you sometimes.
I saw Charlotte the other day.
No? Where? She didn’t mention it.
She didn’t see me. In the street.
But you haven’t seen her for years.
I recognised her.

Betrayal is the perfect play for an actress such as Kristin Scott Thomas. It shows the full range of her remarkable acting ability. She can act below the surface of the words, every subterranean emotion visible in the tiniest vocal inflection or hesitation. Every facial detail or physical gesture signifiers of some pathos at the heart of what it is to be human.

This is not method acting where an actor attempts to psychologically inhabit a character. Instead, this is acting that feels more like a form of possession. Here it is the character that appears to inhabit the soul of the actress. Such acting, bypasses the familiar ways of understanding performance, that is, the action of people pretending to be other people in order to tell a story. The pretence element appears to have almost entirely dissolved, leaving a performance with a crystalline transparency and honesty. Kristin Scott Thomas is a very special actress and acting at the very height of her abilities.

Part of what makes us human is that we are creatures who must communicate. It is not an optional exercise. Discussing the nature of communication, Adam Philips in Monogomy writes, “you cannot be for it or against. You can only do it more or less well – by your own standards or by other people’s – but you can’t not do it.”

In Betrayal, Kristin Scott Thomas’s finely calibrated performance shows how words can mask what we really want or need to say. We are given a real sense that the lies, spoken and unspoken, that surround marital infidelity exist as a cover for our destructive actions. Yet, what we cannot escape, whether it comes to light or not, is the truth about ourselves and our actions.

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