Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 1 June 2019
Based on his own real-life affair, Betrayal is the most emotionally resonant and affecting of Pinter’s plays, and a clever choice to mark the end of what has been an astoundingly good season of work from the Jamie Lloyd Company. A key characteristic of Pinter at the Pinter has been to show the extraordinary range, style and depth of the writer’s shorter works, allowing audiences to truly understand the different layers of his writing – the comic Pinter, the political Pinter and, in some of the season’s most memorable moments, the emotive Pinter, able to move an entire room with a turn of phrase.
Betrayal is a profoundly affecting play, one that is not only fully alive on the page but it sings, every line, every word carefully and sparingly chosen bursts with the characters’ repressed feelings, unspoken affections and the acres of unfillable space that opens-up between them as the play unfolds in reverse. And that’s before you add three of our finest actors to the mix, who demonstrate the phenomenal control Pinter had over his dialogue and the effect he intended to create, as well as those famous pauses which far from empty silence are loaded with tension and tragedy in this stunning new production.
The fact that Betrayal is told backwards is more than a fancy dramatic trick, it adds a heavy weight of inevitability to proceedings, showing the audience how easily meaning can change over time and highlighting the various layers of character interactions. Nothing is quite what it seems on the surface, and like real life conversations, the triangular lovers rarely say what they mean, at least not in full.
So many incidences referenced with a throw-away remark earlier in the play (but chronologically later) appear different, more loaded when Pinter takes you back to really look at them, while so much is left unsaid or merely inferred. As the sands constantly shift between Emma, Jerry and Robert, Pinter leaves you wondering that if love can so easily disappear, was it ever really there at all?
What is clear from Lloyd’s fascinating interpretation is that the doomed love affair at its heart is the play’s biggest red herring. There are few directors who understand Pinter better than Lloyd and here the audience is shown several types of duality within the text; first there is a conversational artifice in many of the scenes that belie the different levels of truth that occur throughout the play. These exchanges between the characters can sound a little stilted, even awkward or slightly unreal which here the actors sometimes deliver in a slightly heightened tone. The purpose is two-fold, to show how intimacy sours as close acquaintances and lovers retreat back into reticence – emphasised in the opening scene in which Emma and Jerry meet several years after their affair ended – and secondly to consciously hide their perspective from each other, as Robert frequently does when alone with Jerry.
The second type of duality refers to truth, how honest the characters are about what they’re doing and, crucially, what they already know. For most of Betrayal’s 90-minute run-time, the audience knows more than any one of the characters on stage, and what the characters do know they frequently keep to themselves. It is in only the second scene, after his reunion with Emma that a frantic Jerry learns for the first time that Robert (his best friend) had known about their liaison for some time – and later Pinter takes us back to that rather crucial revelation.
This withholding of truth from Jerry is mirrored in similar instances throughout the play; Emma doesn’t tell Jerry that Robert knows, Jerry never tell Robert about the affair directly, and Robert never confronts Jerry once he does find out. “You don’t seem to understand that I don’t give a shit about any of this” Robert tells him the aftermath, a truth he presumably withheld from his wife as well. The central affair is then a red herring, a betrayal of course but by no means the only, or even the most significant, betrayal in the play.
What Lloyd does to such astonishing effect in this production is to choreograph every single movement with incredible precision. All three actors remain on-stage throughout but appear together in only a limited number of scenes. The “third” person becomes a shadowy presence between whoever is talking, a permanent, ominous other shading the interplay between the talking couple, all inextricably linked by their complex relationship.
Position and movement is key to marking the rhythm of Pinter’s work, and these changes occur to match the different beats in the dialogue with all three performers, whether in the scene or not, changing position at key moments. Using only the project titles that have been a feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season to mark transitions, scenes flow effortlessly into one another, and Lloyd uses this careful repositioning and the double revolve in the centre of a blank impassive box, designed with style by Soutra Gilmour, to change location, time and mood, allowing the interactions to take focus as they become knottier and more weighted with emotion.
In the early scenes, the actors are at odds and kept largely at a distance from each other; Emma and Jerry sit side-by-side for their pub reunion barely seeing the other, while Robert’s confession in the next scene happens with Jerry on the other side of the stage, reflecting the huge emotional hinterland that has opened up between them. Physical proximity comes later when the artifice of conversation and distance fall away to reveal emotional anguish beneath the surface, something which builds slowly but to great effect under Lloyd’s direction.
In many ways it is Robert who is really at the heart of this play and his friendship with Jerry is something both go to extreme lengths to preserve at great cost to themselves. Alone, Jerry and Emma speak often of Robert, and it is the thought of his despair and protection of his friend that sends Jerry immediately to face the music in Scene Two. Likewise, while on holiday in Venice, Jerry is the key subject for Emma and Robert too, when the latter seems more offended not to be referenced in a crucial letter than the revelation that threatens to unravel their lives. Throughout, Emma and Jerry are searching for ways to be close to Robert, his distance sends Emma into the arms of the man who knows him best, while Jerry seeks out Robert’s wife as a way of holding-on to their friendship when marriage and careers send them in opposite directions.
Purposefully, none of the characters are particularly likeable and despite its focus on infidelity it is play without a victim. To avoid the sympathetic cuckold label Robert admits to having hit his wife because he just wanted to give her ‘a good bashing. The old itch… you understand’. Pinter shows us the kind of man he is upfront, not to be pitied and, as we soon discover, just as unfaithful as his wife has been. Like his superbly brutish Coriolanus, and as a genuinely great stage actor, Tom Hiddleston shows us the complexities of Robert’s character, almost coldly withdraw at the start, approaching the end of his marriage with a blasé acceptance that suggests no deeper hurt beneath the bonhomie of his conversation.
Later we come to realise that Robert’s disassociation stems from years of withdrawal from Emma. A crucial scene in which he learns of her affair is superbly played and you see Hiddleston’s Robert achingly hesitant to introduce a conversation that will confirm his worst fears. The uncertainty subtly flickers across his face as he looks for an opening, eventually blundering in unable to restrain himself any longer. What follows is painfully sad as he accepts the news quietly and resignedly, full of those famous pauses loaded with heavy and heartfelt sorry which Hiddleston performs well as Roberts absorbs the shock and falls to into silent contemplation.
In the following section set in the same month, Robert has a strange lunch with Jerry in which he cannot tell his friend he knows the truth. Instead he engages in a brittle and artificial conversation about Venice and the happy moment he spent alone on Torcello. The audience knows this trip occurred after he found out, and while sections of the audience laugh through the overt chomping of melon and prosciutto, what is really going on in this scene is a man desperate for things to seem normal again, swallowing his fears and, sitting across from his greatest friend, trying to decide if he can live with the lie. It’s quietly devastating, and the pain that Hiddleston so subtly suggests is very moving, even deeply tragic, a high point of the show.
Zawe Ashton’s Emma is equally complicated, her adoration of Jerry cast into doubt by the circumstantial spitefulness of her choices. Not only does she throw herself fairly easily (as the final scene suggests) into an affair with her husband’s best friend who drunkenly pays her attention and then calls him the instant her marriage disintegrates, but she is thought to be in the midst of a fresh affair with a writer called Casey who Jerry obviously despises. From the start, Ashton takes Pinter’s cues to suggest a woman whose need to be desired and love of secrecy balances out the declarations of love she makes both to Jerry and eventually Robert.
But Ashton finds the sympathy and humanity in her too. There is a genuine sadness in the break-up scene at their flat in Kilburn as they both come to realise whatever they had has withered. Ashton is excellent throughout often implying that her feeling for Jerry was always so much stronger than his attachment to her, but is particular good in this scene as the atmosphere between them veers between the practicalities of what to do with the flat and its furniture to the wasted opportunity that their mutual lack of effort has engendered. Similarly, she knows exactly what Robert is driving at in Venice where the need to be honest when directly confronted results in loaded silences and long-held stares that Ashton heaps with complex meaning.
As Jerry, Charlie Cox has an equally nuanced and interesting approach to excavating the changing experience of his character. Jerry’s key concern throughout appears to be protecting his friendship with Robert, and while he is occasionally affectionate to Emma at the height of their affair, Cox shows how remote he becomes from her in many of their more intimate scenes. When she speaks he is often slumped in a chair, gives a cursory answer to her entreaties while, at times, is emotionally and physically dismissive or cruel as his work draws the pair apart.
Contrast this with the frantic fear and remorse that Cox demonstrates in Robert’s presence in that crucial second scene, the concern that his friend will despise him dominating all other responses. It is Emma who remembers the details of their affair, times, places and key occurrences, yet Jerry remembers Robert’s speech about reading Yeats on Torcello, taking a keener interest in his friend than his lover. This ambiguity is equally compelling and repellent in Cox’s performance who brings similar layers of meaning to his interactions with the couple he came between. Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox are a superb trio that individually carve out their own characters using Pinter’s precise and evocative dialogue while filling the spaces in between with a growing feeling of heartbreak that builds so well as the play unfolds.
As a finale to the Pinter at the Pinter season, this couldn’t be better, gripping, full of meaning and so very moving. You’ll need a walk home or have a quiet sit down afterwards to properly process it. Betrayal is the kind of play that stirs the feelings, unsettling and savage at times, but also sad and beautiful. With three exceptional performances full of complexity and feeling, innovative direction that enhances the themes of the play and an intensity that grips you entirely, Betrayal is everything you could hope for. The Pinter at the Pinter season has set a very high standard for itself, but what a swansong this has turned out to be.
Betrayal is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 1 June with tickets from £15. There is a £15 Betrayal Rush scheme every Monday at 12pm for anyone under 30 who is a keyworker or in receipt of Job-Seekers Allowance. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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