Helpmann Award-winning actor Alison Bell is returning to an Adelaide stage to reunite with director Geordie Brookman and actor Nathan O’Keefe for Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’.
The last time Alison Bell appeared on an Adelaide stage, her performance as Hedda Gabler in the production of the same name won the Victorian a Helpmann Award for Best Female Actor. Before Gabler, Bell was best known to Adelaide audiences via the small screen. She starred as Roo McVie in Marieke Hardy’s Laid and also appeared in ABC’s iRock. Bell says that prior to appearing as the title character for her knockout performance in Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic for the State Theatre, she was starting to get a little typecast. “The thing about Hedda, the thing that was a great joy for me, was that it was a type of role that I hadn’t really played before, that sort of woman,” Bell says. “It’s very easy, once people get to know you a bit, to start getting a tiny bit typecast. In the theatre it happens much less than, I think, for my friends who work predominately on the screen, but it does happen just the same. I sound like I’m being quite arrogant,” she laughs, “but I started to play a lot of kind and friendly people. It was really great to explore a completely different woman. I was really honoured that Geordie, not having see me play a role like that, still wanted me for that role.” Written by Pinter in 1978, Betrayal is based on an affair the writer had and is about three people who all betray each other. Presented in reverse chronological order, Bell saw the critically-divided New York 2013 production, which was directed by the late film and theatre director Mike Nichols and starred Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall. Despite being the second most popular non-musical Broadway show of 2013, Betrayal attracted criticism from a number of reviewers for getting the tone wrong. Bell, who saw the New York production, says it was a “really great show” but she understands some of the criticism it received. At the time of this interview, Bell says she was unaware of changes State Theatre director Geordie Brookman will make to the script, but having never performed Pinter before, she’s excited about the “particular challenge his writing presents”. “He’s kind of the master of subtext. It was funny, I was reading the play just recently, going, ‘Oh my goodness – arguably nothing’s going on here. Nothing at all in these scenes’. And yet it is has to be imbued with so much tension. There’s so much going on under the surface. So that’s exciting. Also, curiously, even though it’s extremely naturalistic, he’s also poetic in his rhythms. That’s all very exciting and challenging. When I saw a production [Mike Nichols’ 2013 version], what struck me was how riveting it became by telling the story in the order that it does. The great trick he plays on us by reversing everything. I saw it before I read the play and it stopped me from being able to predict what happens next – or it’s harder to predict what came before rather than what happens next. It felt like an ingenious structure to tell that story.” In Betrayal, Bell plays Emma who is married to Robert but is having an affair with Robert’s friend Jerry who is also married. Bell says she is drawn to characters that have “elusive complexity”. “The multiple deceptions in this piece are mindboggling, really. That three intimate friends can perpetrate this level of betrayal to each other with seeming ease, it’s fascinating. To try and not judge any of that when you step into that world is an exciting challenge as well. I think being an actor and storyteller ultimately is about empathy, so that whole judgement question is a big one. You have to leave that all at the door when you become someone else and follow their journey. It’s a beautifully written play. Even though it is dark on the surface, it can be seen as simply a story of betrayal, but when I saw the play and then read it again, there is so much unexpected humour. It is a very human story and very humanely told. It’s got a lot of dimensions to it.” If you’ve noticed that Bell hasn’t appeared on the small screen or stage much of late, it’s because she had a baby recently. Betrayal will be Bell’s first theatre performance since the birth of her boy. “My career was a little bit interrupted,” she says with a laugh. “I am working on other stuff. I have been writing and I do have a production that I’m not really supposed to be talking about but it is a show that will be shot later this year. I’m doing little bits and pieces. I’m doing a bit of House Husbands [the TV show] right now, just doing my job actor thing. But I haven’t had any major theatre since I had to take some time off because I was way too pregnant.” Betrayal State Theatre Company of South Australia Dunstan Playhouse Friday, July 24 to Saturday, August 15 statetheatrecompany.com.au Photo of Alison Bell by James Hartley