“During the 2010 Tokyo run of my play ‘Anti-clockwise Wonderland,’ I held a reading workshop of ‘Betrayal.’ That set me thinking I’d like to act one of the men in the love-triangle drama. So now at last I find myself doing that — and directing as well,” Keishi Nagatsuka said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

The acclaimed playwright explained that he came across “Betrayal” after returning in 2008 from a year’s government-sponsored drama study in London, where its author, the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter (1930-2008), had long been a towering and influential presence.

Tokyo-native Nagatsuka, 39, said it was love at first sight when he happened on the Englishman’s 1978 masterpiece that draws heavily on its author’s own experience of an affair.

Depicting an adulterous couple named Emma (played now by Yasuko Matsuyuki) and Jerry (Tetsushi Tanaka), and Emma’s husband Robert (Nagatsuka), an old friend of Jerry’s, the story is quite simple and realistic — but as it’s written in the spare and often linguistically unresolved way now termed “Pinteresque,” it becomes a real challenge for actors to both plumb its depths and keep the audience enthralled.

Also, with this play’s unusual structure of rewinding from its present-time start through the protagonists’ years of mutual betrayal and intimacy, it casts a quite different light on humans’ massaging or manipulation of memory — and on human nature itself.

Commenting on that structure, Nagatsuka said, “We can’t reverse time like a film effect, so this play made me confused at first because I couldn’t always work out whether someone was lying or whether they were relating what was — or had become — true memory for them. I realized that really getting inside the play as an actor was the only way to know how to portray its dualities cleverly as a director without being judgmental.

“That makes our production (titled ‘Haishin,’ Japanese for betrayal) especially interesting, I think, as it allows both actors and audience to realize how much ambiguity — or even fiction — there often is in what we say and do.”

In setting about staging this English play for Japanese audiences, Nagatsuka said he had many discussions with its translator, the leading Pinter scholar Tetsuo Kishi, before refashioning it into today’s colloquial Japanese. Also, he used props to visually indicate the complexity of the relationships, as he explained, “At the start, we see objects belonging to each person individually, but as time rolls back they gradually come to coexist among them and the border of each person’s possessions becomes uncertain.”

Meanwhile, Nagatsuka said that though he regards “Betrayal” as a universal work, it had been hard to convey the characters’ true individuality. “If I directed it as a Japanese human drama, it would just be like a common lovers’ quarrel,” he explained. “So I’ve tried to present the characters as I experienced people in London — and I discussed their deeper feelings and nuances in detail with the actors.”

In fact, with the benefit of hindsight it seems as if Nagatsuka was destined to stage Pinter, because since rising to fame in his early twenties he’s clearly been interested in themes such as time and memory — as became especially apparent in “Anti-clockwise Wonderland,” his keenly anticipated first play after returning from London.

Commenting on that work whose novelist hero drifts in and out of the fictions he creates, Nagatsuka said, “First of all, I believe the distance from which we regard yesterday is different for each of us. Also, as no one can control how anyone remembers things, we are coexisting in such an ambiguous world and trying to somehow live in harmony. This is very, very interesting for me.

“In fact, I just want to write about memory and time all the time, but it’s such a paranoia-inducing subject I can’t do that because a lot of people wouldn’t welcome it and (glancing at his producer and laughing) it wouldn’t be commercially viable. However, I think I’ll be able to create a play on that theme as a kind of absurd mass entertainment.”

He may also care to recall that even Pinter was not always well-regarded — so why worry how history judges you.

Betrayal” runs till Sept. 15 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama; Sept. 18-30 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre in Ikebukuro; then tours to Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture, Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture and Niigata City. For details, call 03-6809-7125 or visit www.kuzukawa-shichohsa.jp.

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