Joan Bakewell responds to Pinter's Betrayal with her take on their affair

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“Truth in drama is forever elusive,” said Harold Pinter in his lecture on receiving the Nobel prize for literature. You could hardly have a better demonstration of that than in two plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday. One was Pinter’s Betrayal. The other was Joan Bakewell’s Keeping in Touch, written in response to Pinter’s play which used details of the couple’s seven-year affair. Bakewell’s play was lighter in texture than Pinter’s but deftly told the story from her perspective and raised fascinating questions about the frustrations of bourgeois marriage.

The basic facts are not in dispute. From 1962 to 1969 Pinter and Bakewell had a clandestine affair. Pinter at the time was married to Vivien Merchant, and Joan to Michael Bakewell who had directed several Pinter plays on radio. If I know a little more than most about the matter it is because, when I wrote a biography of Pinter in the 1990s, I interviewed Joan Bakewell who broke the news of the affair. She told me she had been upset when Pinter first sent her a copy of Betrayal because it read like a diary of their relationship. She also felt that “betrayal” was a judgmental word. “But we go on betraying, don’t we?” she said. “Here am I telling you about it?” What she didn’t reveal was that she had written a play of her own in response to Pinter’s.

Keeping in Touch, like Betrayal, puts events at a slight distance. Bakewell’s heroine, Rachel, is a professional translator clearly irked by the limitations of her life. “Three years at university and here I am stuck at home with small children,” she pointedly tells her husband, David, adding “Is this it?” What brightens her life is that Tom, a famous architect working on a TV documentary with her husband, is ardently pursuing her. They meet in pubs and parks and Rachel palpably enjoys the sense of engaging in a flirtatious relationship that seems to be leading in one inevitable direction.

‘We go on betraying, don’t we?’ … Joan Bakewell.
‘We go on betraying, don’t we?’ … Joan Bakewell. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

The pivotal point in Bakewell’s play, as in Pinter’s Betrayal, comes when Rachel and her husband, David, take a holiday in Venice. In Bakewell’s play Rachel goes to the poste restante in expectation of a letter from Tom. Instead she finds one, addressed in the family surname, which she opens and discovers to be a love letter to David from another woman. That is subtly different to a similar scene in Betrayal. In Pinter’s play the husband, Robert, goes to the same poste restante and sees a letter, also addressed to the family name. Robert instantly recognises the handwriting of his best friend, Jerry, and confronts his wife with the fact. “We’re lovers,” she says. “Ah yes,” says Robert, “I thought it might be something like that.”

It is, of course, possible to separate both plays from the lives of their authors. But the differences between the two versions of events are fascinating. Bakewell’s play suggests her fictional alter ego was propelled towards an affair by the discovery of her husband’s deception. In Pinter’s play the central characters were lovers long before the Venetian mishap. Bakewell’s play also suggests there was a good deal of caution and hesitancy before a total commitment was made. In Betrayal there seems no doubt that Emma and Jerry will have an affair from the moment he rapturously kisses her.

Bakewell sees events from a feminist perspective. Keeping in Touch is clearly about an intelligent woman trapped in a domestic life that denies her fulfilment: Rachel has a crucial speech in which she talks about the way marriage cuts you off from attractive and beguiling people and becomes “a limit on life”. Pinter’s play is also not simply a re-creation of an old affair but a study of the multiple betrayals, not least of our youthful aspirations, that many of us experience.

Bakewell is not, of course, setting out to rival Pinter as a dramatist: that, as I’m sure she is aware, would be a hopeless task. Her dialogue is crisply functional whereas Pinter’s has endless poetic resonance. The two plays also sounded very different on radio. Keeping in Touch, as produced by Charlotte Riches, sped along in a manner that was almost jaunty. Two things, however, struck me. One was the way Charlotte Riley sharply caught the difference between Rachel’s relaxation with her future lover and her tenseness with her husband. The other was Bakewell’s reminder that children are part of marriage and that even Venetian holidays can be as much about the kids getting sand in the ice-cream as about confronting domestic truths.

It made for lively radio but Gaynor Mafarlane’s production of Betrayal, even if it overdid the pauses, had a pervasive sadness. Listening to Olivia Colman as Emma, Andrew Scott as Jerry and Charles Edwards as Robert, you were conscious, as the events unfolded in reverse chronological order, of the way betrayal spreads like a virus through a whole network of human relationships. The clever juxtaposition of the two plays certainly made for a radio event and left me thinking less about the rights and wrongs of Bakewell and Pinter’s points of view than about the subjectivity of truth.

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