“Well, it’s nice, sometimes, to think back. Isn’t it?” And so that’s what Harold Pinter does with Betrayal; we begin in the present, where Emma reveals to Jerry that her marriage to Robert is over and that he knows about their affair, before steadily heading back by a few years at a time for each scene, ending the play ten years before when the affair begins. The play was inspired by Pinter’s own seven-year extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, and made its debut at the National Theatre in 1978. This new production brings the Jamie Lloyd Company’s Pinter at the Pinter season to an end, with Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox in the starring roles.
Whilst it’s not uncommon for a play to begin in the here & now, before flashing back and then coming to a conclusion in the present, Betrayal is quite a rare beast in that (aside from a few pivotal scenes) we keep heading into the past and end up staying there. The structure of the play elevates the whole thing from ordinary to fascinating, as Emma’s memories (and lies) weave in & out of the story; Robert’s admission of his own infidelity is also steeped in ambiguity, as Jerry (his oldest friend) doesn’t remember him displaying any of the tell-tale signs, and Jerry’s own wife’s knowledge of the affair remains uncertain. Piecing all of this information together, and taking account of any inconsistencies, makes it a gripping watch from finish to start.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, granted – a certain amount of concentration is involved so it’s not a show to see if you want to switch off for a couple of hours, and not a huge amount actually happens – but it’s not all melancholy and darkness. There’s a good chunk of Pinter’s typical humour, thanks in part to his economical dialogue but also stemming from the possibilities that some of the situations open up to director and actors. Scene 7 is a great example of this; Robert & Jerry meeting for lunch could go various ways, from the mundane to outright cruelty, but this production utilises some great visual gags with the wine as well as allowing Robert (who has just found out about the affair) to express some of his bitterness & anger without Jerry suspecting his motives.
The sparseness of the set (Soutra Gilmour) is a big plus point, for me; aside from a small amount of furniture, it all takes place in a marble effect world. Everything is laid bare, not unlike the relationship between the three people. Lloyd’s direction ensures that all three are always in eyeshot, even if it’s a two-hander scene – the third party is always at the back of the others’ minds, almost (but not quite) intruding on their conversations. This simplicity allows the viewer to focus in on the importance of what’s being said, rather than where they are at the time – all that’s needed are the projections stating how far we’re going back into the past.
The cast are excellent. Zawe Ashton has an air of mystery about her as Emma, concealing truths from both her husband and her lover; some lies are obviously understandable, but Ashton’s slight aloofness accentuates the more unnecessary ones. As her husband Robert, Tom Hiddleston excels at drawing out the dark humour in the script – he also hints at feelings of possessiveness towards both Emma and Jerry, made slightly sinister by a brooding intensity as he stands on the sidelines of their interactions. Hiddleston’s delivery is well suited to Pinter’s economical style, and he finds it rich with meaning. It’s Charlie Cox who impresses most, however, as Jerry. Although his betrayal of Robert is unforgivable (as his oldest friends and best man at his wedding to Emma) you can’t help but feel bewildered with him at instances of the married pair’s behaviour; until you get right to the end of the play, Cox manages to generate a certain amount of sympathy for Jerry. His ease, naturalness & emotional availability make the character simple to connect with from the very first scene. A masterclass.
My verdict? A real gem from the Pinter collection, benefiting from the minimalist design and slick direction of this production – Charlie Cox’s performance is a real highlight.
Betrayal runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 8 June 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Betrayal Rush offers £15 tickets every Monday at 12pm to under 30s, key workers and recipients of JSA & other government benefits.