One of my favourite ways to de-stress during the various lockdowns has been to sort and re-sort my bookshelf. I suspect I’m not the only one who has found this therapeutic, not least because an upside is that it diverts my attention towards any forgotten or neglected gems.
Two books I recently went back to are my copies of the script for Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ and the combined scripts for the TV series ‘Fleabag.’ As with most of the books on my shelf, they rub shoulders mostly because they were gifts at one point; yet after a re-read, I started musing on a bigger connection between the two - silence.
I’ll confess that I saw ‘Betrayal,’ a play about the agonising love triangle between a husband, Robert, his wife, Emma, and Robert’s best friend Jerry, eight times on stage during its 2019 run - seven times in London and once in New York - so it’s one of the scripts I know the most intimately.
This wasn’t just out of a passion for Pinter. Anyone who has glanced at my Twitter feed will know my love for Tom Hiddleston (who plays Robert) runs deep. My affection for Charlie Cox (who plays Jerry) runs almost as deep, especially as finding out that Cox was due to tread the boards in ‘Betrayal’ was some kind of compensation after the cancellation of ‘Daredevil.’
I wasn’t as familiar with the back catalogue of Zawe Ashton, the actor who played Emma, but I found her restrained, simmering performance throughout the run to be masterful - at times aloof, at other times incredibly tender, essential qualities in a play about extra-marital affairs and ruined relationships, where a lot is implied, but little is overtly said.
The restraint in Pinter’s writing is what makes ‘Betrayal’ so compelling. Just as with works by George Orwell or Graham Greene, Pinter makes economy of dialogue seem effortless, even when we know deep down that it’s the product of immense skill, honed over a long time.
Pinter’s pauses and silences are also deliberate, and loud. A good example is in the opening scene, when Jerry and Emma are looking back on their now-defunct affair, which unspools in reverse throughout the rest of the play. Mostly they make small talk, but in a rare moment of exposed vulnerability, Jerry and Emma look at each other for a long time in silence, before Jerry calls Emma, with longing, “Darling.”
To the audience the silence is drawn out like a blade, making Jerry’s woeful utterance of that one word tell us all we need to know about how he views the past, as well as his current emotional state.
As Cox put it in a full-cast interview with Radio 4 in 2019, “with a pause, it’s either because you were going to say something and decide not to, or you thought the other person was going to say something and they didn’t - the idea being that you take a break in the continued through-line of that moment, so you pause. With a silence, during or after a silence one or both of the characters are changed, and then you have to pick up a new moment at the end of it. There’s something very dead and alive to a silence that a pause doesn’t quite have.”
As Hiddleston put it, “the silences allow the subtext to live.....your mind re-writes history with that new piece of information that you have, and you realise you’re a fool.”
We learn something in the silences. They’re not coincidental - they’re an essential part of the script.
‘Fleabag,’ a dark comedy about the tortured antics of a woman in her thirties, does something very similar, in that more about the characters is given away in the spaces between words, rather than the words themselves. The character of Fleabag herself, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, even highlights this by how often she states that traumatic incidents in her family are dealt with by her kith and kin in a specific way - “we don’t talk about it.”
There’s even an entire episode towards the end of the first season where Fleabag and her sister Claire spend time in a silent retreat house, a trip that initially prompts scepticism in both of them, but eventually lets them both learn by listening and watching rather than talking.
Fleabag even manages to reconcile with the man who rejected her application for a business loan (Hugh Dennis) when she watches him take part in a course designed to help him overcome his warped view of women in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint. Her silence means he can open up, and she can see that his behaviour during their initial encounter - he asks her to leave his office after she accidentally exposes herself - has a root to it. She can see that he has as many insecurities and regrets as her. As he puts it, “I’m just a very....disappointing man.” Their rapport vastly improves after this encounter.
In the show’s second season, the infamous ‘hot priest’ (Andrew Scott) is one of the few people who notices how much Fleabag hates answering questions, as well as how often she speaks to the camera - a camera that we know is there, but the other characters don’t. The presence of the audience is implied through her quiet nods to the camera, and we, as viewers, are invited to lean into the silences in a way that makes those around her feel excluded. We immediately feel an intimacy with her that makes us more invested in her world, sometimes without even realising it.
That’s not to suggest that silence isn’t a risky tactic in a script. Many writers fall into the trap of relying too much on actions to fill in the gaps between characters’ conversations, even though it’s a danger to make actions too flowery or descriptive, or leading - after all, theatres have a limited amount of money to spend on sets, especially after the pandemic. The dialogue has to do the heavy-lifting, so silence has to be used within the characters’ interactions, not outside of them.
The 2019 version of ‘Betrayal,’ which was directed by Jamie Lloyd, was a great case-study in what you can achieve with a stripped-back set, containing only a few chairs, a table and three actors. Phoebe Waller-Bridge achieved something similar with the stage version of ‘Fleabag,’ which spawned the TV series. It was one woman on a chair, interacting with the audience.
The message I took home from going back over both sets of scripts, and remembering the productions they spawned, was clear - less is more, and silence can be golden, but it’s still important to let the dialogue do the work. Therefore let your silences speak.