The art of looking backwards

Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now back in the West End, reverses chronology to dazzling effect. Others have played with time and failed, says Paul Taylor, but those who get it right often achieve works of incredible depth
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A friend of mine was once obsessed with playing a video recording of the wedding of Charles and Diana with his finger on the rewind button. Watching it with him on occasion, I used particularly to enjoy the bit where Diana's vast wedding train appeared to be dragging her inexorably back down the steps of St Paul's and into the vehicle that had brought her there. And who can say that she would not have been happier, in the long run, had it contrived to do so?

Witnessing disasters cartoonily reversed is one of the spooky pleasures afforded by this kind of counter-clockwise procedure. Famously, the hero of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five watches retroverted footage of Second World War bombings – a feature that influenced Martin Amis when he applied the same technique to Auschwitz and the life of a German doctor who had assisted Josef Mengele there in his 1991 novella, Time's Arrow. At the same time, works of art that flow against the temporal current offer one the oddly freeing, sometimes faintly absurdist experience of encountering effects before causes: "The effect of living backwards... always makes one feel a little giddy at first," the White Queen informs Alice in Through the Looking Glass. Asked why she has screamed before, rather than after, pricking her finger on a brooch, this madcap royal magisterially declares, as if to an imbecile, "Why I have done all the screaming already... What would be the good of having it all over again?"

Pre-eminent amongst the stage plays that unfold in this manner is Harold Pinter's 1978 drama Betrayal, which is based on the author's own adulterous affair with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell and is now in previews in the West End in a revival directed by Ian Rickson and starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles. The proceedings begin with a bleak reunion drink in 1977, two years after the end of the seven-year affair between literary agent Jerry and Emma, the wife of his best friend, publisher Robert. The play then makes backward leaps, ending in 1968 and what, in a play full of intricate treacheries, is possibly the primal act of betrayal. During a party, Robert walks in on his wife and future paramour in her bedroom just after Jerry has made his first declaration of love. Instead of direct acknowledgement or protest, the husband reavows his affection for his best friend, thereby declining to pre-empt the emotional ménage à trois that may ensue.

As Rickson argues, "one of the tragedies is that the characters are so unaware of the play's structural movement." Unbeknownst to them, and with the effect of both intellectual irony and wrenching poignancy, even the good things – from the audience's perspective – occur in the shadow of the fore-ordained. The actors consequently have to "deprogramme" themselves, scene by scene, from what they have already been through. The director spent the first week of rehearsal working on the play as though the story were told chronologically so that the cast got a sense of the shape of these lives. Then he reverted to the sequence Pinter devised, with the actors enjoined to stay absolutely in each separate Proustian moment.

When he ran The Royal Court, Rickson read hundreds of plays and was struck by how "a playful time scheme" was often just a bid to camouflage the conventionality of an otherwise unremarkable piece. Across the genres, though, there are fine examples of works of art that move backwards with a strong sense of purpose. The list would, to my mind, have to include the aforementioned Time's Arrow. In film, there is Christopher Nolan's brilliant, endlessly suggestive Memento, which proceeds in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back manner as it focuses on a former insurance man who is obsessed with avenging his raped and murdered wife, though hampered with a chronic short-term memory loss. In musicals, there is Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along (1981) which, in the best of the subsesquently revised versions, takes three friends – a composer, a lyricist and a magazine writer – from the embittered compromise and lost ideals of the composer's Hollywood success in 1979 to the New York rooftop in 1957 where they watch Sputnik as a trio of young hopefuls tingling with anticipation on the brink of their careers. Most musicals build up a memory bank of reprise and self-quotation as a shorthand to feeling. What happens when ironic recapitulation occurs before its originating occasion?

All these works take huge technical risks but, because of its exceptionally sensitive subject matter, Time's Arrow is easily the most audacious and controversial. Here, by virtue of the reverse narration and by a calculatedly grotesque irony, the German guards and doctors in Auschwitz become not just the saviours of the Jews, but their visionary begetters. They draw them down into being and pound the gold teeth back into their gums, from the smoke of their extermination. "Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race? To make a people from the weather. From thunder and lightning. With gas and electricity. With shit and with fire." The book is a bravura performance with all the problems of propriety that that suggests. Significantly, the method could never work if Amis had chosen to focus on the life story of one of the Jewish prisoners. It would simply break down in the face of the attempt in these camps (as we know from the work of Primo Levi) to destroy the humanity of the inmates in a systematically irreversible way. Nonetheless, unlike the writing in Time's Arrow that flows off the page and back into the pen, I would not wish this necessarily disturbing work unwritten.

It is customary with art that unwinds backwards that the audience is in an awkward position of superior awareness to the protagonists. A remarkable feature to the one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach of Memento is that it instils a disorienting empathy for the confusion in the mind of the central character, Lenny. His world has to start from scratch every time he wakes on his revenge mission in LA, his short-term memory problems reducing him to tattooing key facts on his body and to carrying round a clutch of Polaroids to identify the strangers who keep greeting him familiarly. There are many ways of looking at Memento – one that intrigues me is its peculiar affinities with Oedipus Rex. Lenny's fate is like a ghastly travesty of that of Sophocles' king, another investigating hero who is fighting to resist the recognition that he is his own quarry in another tragedy where a suspect insurance policy profoundly backfires.

Like Pinter's play, Merrily We Roll Along unreels its way from blighted experience to relative innocence and Sondheim's music beautifully underscores this counterintuitive course. Thus, in the version that Michael Grandage directed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000, the songwriting duo's big hit number "Good Thing Going" was first heard reverently strummed by sell-out Frank's later disciples, then unveiled at a snobby party – where socialites chatter like philistines over its reprise – and then, by various melodic degrees, is recaptured in the composer's earliest bouncy piano sketches, its haunting ruefulness shed in the process. The lyric itself, "We had a good thing going/ Going, gone", is in a paradoxical relationship to a show shaped on the opposite pattern of "Gone, going, going – beginning". Grandage's version reverted to the concept in the original Broadway production of opening with a graduation ceremony at which the gowned students rebel against the older Frank's cynical speech about the need for pragmatism. It is, perhaps, a flaw in Merrily that after all its worldly wisdom about the failure of dreams, it ends up buying into too starry-eyed a myth of primary innocence.

That is why, as Ian Rickson points out, the final scene of Betrayal is, contrastingly, so fine – holding the options open in its mystery and ambiguity. Are we seeing the worm that was always coiled in the bud or is the worm our own self-induced optical illusion? Samuel Beckett, who had a copy of Pinter's play in the room with him when he died, had little truck with the notion that the ending straightforwardly puts the final cynical piece in a puzzle of ever-more-intricate treachery. Instead, in a sentence that reads like a prose poem and stands as a shrewd gloss on what is moving in many of these reverse-action works, he wrote "That last first look in the shadows after all those in the light to come wrings the heart."

'Betrayal' is currently previewing at the Comedy Theatre, London SW1 (0844 871 7622). Booking to 20 August