Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 1 June 2019
I sometimes wish Harold Pinter had written more plays like this: decadent, agonised, helplessly sensitive to the nuances of friendship and treachery. More praise has always met the political paranoia and over-relished bullying aggression of his other plays, long and short: Jame Lloyd’s Pinter season has been a triumph. But for me this was always going to be the treasure.
Ironically in 1978 it was not a well reviewed critical triumph – my friend and idol Benedict Nightingale was about the only one to spot how good it is. It is the tale of a seven-year affair, told backwards in a series of scenes from the guilty couple’s reunion over a drink two years after it ends, right back to its beginnings at a party nine years earlier. It had its moment of gossipy fame when we all learned how painfully close its story ran to his own affair – while married – with the equally married Joan Bakewell, whose husband (his close friend) then upset the playwright by revealing that he’d known for ages.
So here we have Charlie Cox as Jerry the interloper, chirpy at first about how secret they were (“we were brilliant!”), Zawe Ashton as his lover, and Tom Hiddleston as her husband Robert. Lloyd directs, in the best and subtlest bit of work of his I have yet seen: slow-motion, he gives such weight to the pauses that you sometimes want to shout out the unspoken words which each of these helpless, hopeless people should be uttering, if they were not trapped by their selves.
It is starkly set in a whitish box with three chairs and, briefly, a table; the protagonists mainly all on stage at once, though one watching, left out, watchful; brilliant use is made of the revolve, particularly when Hiddleston, enigmatic and restrained, circles around the lovers. Once, as he moves past them unseen he is holding closely to his small daughter: the emotion, the sense of a family damaged, is intense.
In the scene where he lunches with his rival he is briefly given a chance of volcanic anger, all misdirected, snapping at the waiter. Here’s a man trapped inside masculinity, friendship, shame, bewilderment. In fact Hiddleston, again in his best performance yet, is the emotional core of the production. Charlie Cox as Jerry is chirpy, unrepentant, proud of his own rhetoric (especially in that extraordinary last-but-first scene where he declares his love in pretentious eloquence) and striking in a different way.
If you take the parallels, the play is painfully hard on Pinter himself . Zawe Ashton’s Emma, tall and rangy, loose-limbed and unconventionally sexy, comes increasingly to seem like a pawn between them, as the real energy is emitted from the male friendship. I have never seen a production of this play which made Pinter’s misogyny clearer. But there is much else in it, worth picking up, spiky with detail, reekingly honest about dishonesty.
Box office 0844 871 7622, until June 1.