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For Whom The Bell Tolls: Betrayal

Beatrice Smith

Opening this Wednesday 19 August, Canberra born actor Alison Bell will star in renowned British playwright Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at Canberra Theatre Centre.

I spoke to Alison ahead of the closing week of the play’s Adelaide season about her character, Emma, the ‘pinteresque’ and returning to her hometown stage.

When I call Alison, a bright, bubbly voice meets mine on the phone and for some reason I’m surprised. I’m not sure what I expected, perhaps a sombre tone to match the serious, pared back imagery of the Betrayal promotional posters that feature Alison looking sombre. The posters certainly reflect the play’s subject material – Betrayal revolves around a seven year love triangle based on infidelity – but they don’t do Alison’s enthusiastic personality justice.

“The response has been positive and the show is getting better and better as we go along, which is what you want!” says Alison about the play’s Adelaide season. “We’re having a great time – even though it’s the most tense kind of content. It’s such a great play.”

As I try to grapple with how Alison’s cheery nature could be poured into the measured, upper class Emma who she portrays in Betrayal, I naively ask whether she was able to find an affinity with her character, which is rather like asking a painter if they like every colour they’re commissioned to paint.

“That’s always my job – no matter how close or far I am from the person on the page, my job is to really empathise,” says Alison, warmly, “and the thing about Pinter’s writing is, even though the play is essentially about infidelity, Pinter is much smarter than that. If it was just about that it would be a soap opera.”

“It’s about the hundreds of tiny betrayals that we execute on a daily basis and the white lies and the almost-truths that we tell.”

“I think what [Pinter] captures so brilliantly is how human beings, we so rarely exhibit emotional courage, we often take the easiest road when we’re in difficult conversations and Emma always struggles to really say what she wants; how she really feels. And of course I can personally relate to that…I think most human beings will,” Alison laughs. “This play shows the consequences of that.”

I bring up that Pinter had such influence that his work gained a moniker ‘pinteresque’ – a term for the collection of common themes than ran through Pinter’s work. When I asked Alison about her perception of ‘the pinteresque’ in Betrayal she pauses for a moment before answering.

“I’ve never done another Pinter play but I think when people talk about something being ‘pinteresque’ is that there’s a menace below the surface and I do think that’s very present in this play,” says Alison. “I think this is the most human, the most relatable of his plays and probably because it’s based very closely on his own experiences – [Pinter had] an affair with Joan Bakewell for seven years – he doesn’t shy away from the ugliness in human beings.”

Betrayal plays out in reverse chronological order so I’m curious to know how the set adapts to this. Like every other aspect of Betrayal, Alison has nothing but praise.

“They’ve done a marvellous job at solving the challenge of this play which is that there are nine scene changes – you can’t have an audience waiting there [for] ten minutes after every scene as we change the set!” Alison laughs, “I think it’s really beautiful…we snuck into the theatre [to see the set for the first time] and it took my breath away.”

“It is a minimalist set; we basically have what we need [but] there’s also a beautiful allusion to memory and time and things left behind…lives really.”

Alison grew up in Canberra and studied at the ANU and when I ask her whether she’s excited to perform in her hometown it’s palpable in her voice.

“I’m really excited! I worked at the Canberra Theatre Centre while I was [at] the ANU,” she says. “That was an extremely important time in my life; I got to see so many productions, I got to meet heaps of actors and directors in a very nervous, shy kind of way,” she laughs.

“They were really formative years in terms of where I’ve landed and I’ve worked with wonderful people at the Canberra Theatre Centre and I’ve got to see how magnificent the Playhouse [is] as a space – I’m very excited to be working on that stage.”


the essentials 

What: Betrayal

Where: Canberra Theatre Centre

When: 19-22 August

Cost: $40 to $70 for adults, buy them here


Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Online Editor involves eating, drinking and interviewing people - sometimes simultaneously. The master of HerCanberra’s publishing schedule, she’s usually found hunched over a huge calendar muttering to herself about content balance. Otherwise, you’ll find her at the movies or ordering a cheese board. More about the Author