Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 1 June 2019
Jamie Lloyd’s terrific Pinter season, at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, climaxes with a revival of Betrayal, arguably one of the writer’s more personal pieces and one of his most innovative and beguiling.
Written by Pinter in 1978, is the icing on the cake to Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season which has been running at the theatre for the past six months. And, thanks to having the enormously bankable Tom Hiddleston heading the cast, it is an assured success. It is a stunning piece of theatre.
Elegant, pared back and graceful to watch, Betrayal turns the clock back on an affair, starting long after its conclusion and working its way towards its inception. They say you should write about what you know and, apparently, the story was inspired by Pinter’s own clandestine seven-year, extramarital affair with BBC Television presenter Joan Bakewell.
Here we have Robert (Hiddleston), a book publisher, his wife Emma who runs an art gallery, and his best mate, Jerry, a literary agent. Soutra Gilmour’s minimalist, stripped back, set includes just two hard chairs for the threesome. As the story unfolds one actor is left standing, usually hugging the back wall, staring off into the distance, while being beautifully lit by Jon Clark.
In fact the lighting is so wondrous that a mirror image of the play is performed in shadow and, it has to be said, the lithe, stylishly dressed Hiddleston, makes a gloriously decorous silhouette. Such are the length of the pauses in Pinter’s dialogue that the audience has time to study the dark doppelgangers, especially Hiddleston’s long neck and classical profile, performing in tandem against the backcloth. It’s quite hypnotic.
The play opens with Emma and Jerry meeting up, two years after their seven-year affair ended. The conversation is peppered with banalities, awkward silences, embarrassed laughs. She tells him a white lie, that last night she finally told Robert about their affair. Jerry is horrified. Robert’s his oldest friend – although he didn’t hesitate to have an affair with his wife but perhaps that’s the literati set for you.
Later, Jerry and Robert see each other. Jerry is acutely embarrassed while Robert seems blasé. And no wonder. He’d actually known about the affair for years. Jerry is even more appalled.
“I thought you knew that I knew?” Says Robert. “But we have seen each other. We’ve had lunch!” Exclaims Jerry. “But we’ve never played squash” replies Robert through gritted teeth.
You get the feeling that squash is Alpha male, Robert’s, version of a duel, somewhere where he can exert his dominance, settle old scores.
In reality guilt plays no part in their sordid relationships. Robert sheds soft tears on learning about his wife’s betrayal – the hypocrite – yet Emma reveals to Jerry that her husband had betrayed her for years with other women.
And Jerry, married with two kids, feels no regret at cheating.
Over the course of nearly 100 minutes (it should be 90 but those pregnant pauses extend every scene) the three interact, artistically posed on chairs, against the wall, occasionally touching but mostly kept apart. A tableau of insincerity and self-absorption.
Robert is a typical Pinter protagonist, a vain, intimidating, misogynist who admits to smacking his wife about because he likes to, and an adulterer who feels no remorse.
Hiddleston delivers a beautifully restrained and nuanced performance, letting Pinter’s often shocking and revealing dialogue work for him.
The only time he exhibits any real emotion is when he furiously attacks a plate of prosciutto and melon during a drunken lunch with Jerry. The poor man pounces on the food like he hasn’t eaten in a week.
Charlie Cox, as Jerry, wears his heart on his sleeve, from his first sozzled flirtation with Emma to his confrontations with the oh so cool Robert. Yet, like Emma and Robert, he shows little self-reproach for his actions.
And, caught in the middle is Zawe Ashton’s Emma, a woman looking for affection and possibly disillusioned with her marriage – yet, as always, you wish Pinter had given more thought to the character’s motivation and back story.
Every pause speaks volumes, every wistful glance, light touch and passing expression is filled with meaning. This is Pinter at his very best.
Betrayal runs at The Harold Pinter Theatre until June 1.
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