In some respects, there are quite a few plays out there like Betrayal. Robert (Tom Hiddleston) is married to Emma (Zawe Ashton) but then there’s Jerry (Charlie Cox), Robert’s best friend who is attracted to Emma, feelings which Emma responds to in kind. Given the play’s title, it doesn’t take a genius to join the dots. But what makes Betrayal relatively unique, particularly with so many contemporary plays in the post-Pinter era that provide an insight into characters’ personal lives, is that it runs, more or less, in reverse chronological order. There isn’t the confusion of jumping around between years, as some plays with a longitudinal storyline sometimes do, and rather than building up to the critical incident, this play blurts it out in the first scene. Audible gasps from the audience done and dusted, the narrative then turns to providing the details as to how things got to this point.
The set (Soutra Gilmour) is kept ridiculously simple and sparse, though the stage is kept light and airy. Two wooden chairs are shifted around, and the stage revolves – sometimes painfully slowly, as though the characters were dishes on a rotating conveyor belt in a sushi bar. All three characters remain on stage throughout, save for a scene in a restaurant when there is a fourth person, a waiter (Eddie Arnold), in one of those upmarket establishments where the portions are so small it is as though customers are only supposed to dine with them if their stomachs are already full. For the record, there is a fifth on-stage character, but I think it would be revealing too much to go into further details about that.
But not all three characters are necessarily in conversation with one another, and there is a part of me that thinks that perhaps non-parties to a scene should have been precisely that – out of sight, out of mind and all that. Then again, given the extra-marital happenings, the ‘other’ person is never entirely out of the minds of the naughty pair, and as the play establishes fairly early on, none of the three are blameless. Moments of humour keep permeating through the brisk (by Pinter standards) play, often relating to misunderstandings.
The gravity of what has happened is contrasted well with the characters’ commitment, both individually and collectively, to maintaining civility. Nobody rants and raves, and nobody throws crockery across the room – the closest thing to aggression happens in the restaurant, when Robert adopts an abrupt manner with the waiter, attacks his starter and pours wine for both Jerry and himself at an almost alarming rate. While the audience is left to imagine what either the restaurant or anywhere else (say, a hotel room) would look like, a relentless focus is kept on the dialogue and, of course, the acting.
Hiddleston’s Robert, the stand-out performance for me, is consummately engaging, and emotionally deep as well as broad. Ashton’s Emma seems to want to have her cake and eat it, so to speak, and evidently would rather not be forced to choose between one man and the other. Cox’s Jerry comes across as very affable, if a tad lightweight. Time has been kind to this play, which was first staged in 1978. A cast that works very well together and bounces off one another’s energies is also beneficial in a show where what isn’t said can sometimes ‘speak’ as much as what is spoken aloud. A stylish and sharply perceptive production, this is an excellent and fascinating end to the impressive Pinter at the Pinter season.
Review by Chris Omaweng
With poetic precision, rich humour and an extraordinary emotional force, Betrayal charts a compelling seven-year romance, thrillingly captured in reverse chronological order. The complexities of the human heart are explored in this, “the greatest, and the most moving, of all Pinter’s plays” (The Daily Telegraph).
Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox, join Golden Globe, Olivier and Evening Standard Award winner Tom Hiddleston in The Jamie Lloyd Company production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 5 March 2019 (press night 13 March) for a strictly limited season ending on 1 June.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, the production forms the culmination of the historic Pinter at the Pinter season.
Betrayal is presented by The Jamie Lloyd Company, ATG Productions, Ben Lowy Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions and Glass Half Full Productions.
BETRAYAL by Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4DN