If Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season was the main course – dish after dish of one-act Harold Pinter plays in the West End theatre that bears his name – then this is the pudding: a limited-run revival of his 1978 play, with undisputed A-lister Tom Hiddleston as the cherry on top.
Inspired by Pinter’s own extra-marital affair with Joan Bakewell, Betrayal follows the friendships and infidelities between Robert, his wife Emma and their friend Jerry. Pinter’s unique spin is to let it all play out in reverse chronological order, starting in 1977 and tracking back, scene by scene, revelation by revelation, to 1968.
Lloyd’s revival sees Hiddleston, star of the Avengers movies and the BBC’s The Night Manager, make his first stage appearance since his exclusive RADA Hamlet in September 2017. He’s joined by Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox, in a production that runs until June.
But does Lloyd’s last production in his Pinter at the Pinter season impress? Do the critics cover this star-studded coda in acclaim? Does Hiddleston have the heart to render this revival a fitting finale to an extraordinary endeavour?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Lloyd’s seven-course Pinter at the Pinter season had its ups and downs – probably more of the former than the latter, all things said and done – but here is its final hurrah. And it looks like he’s saved the best until last.
His revival is “exceptionally thoughtful and searching” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★), “blisteringly brilliant” according to Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★), and “oozes confidence and style” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★).
“What is striking is the spartan purity of Jamie Lloyd’s production,” explains Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “Of the many versions of the play I’ve seen over the past 40 years, this one goes furthest in stripping the action of circumstantial detail.”
“Everything in Lloyd’s minimalist staging feels precisely calibrated,” adds Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “Whenever two of the characters are conversing, the third lingers in the background. Silences are extended, so that we concentrate on the eloquence of gestures and facial expressions. The result is a sense of Robert, Emma and Jerry as a trio engaged in a haunting dance, and at times it’s as if the three of them have merged into one.”
“Jamie Lloyd knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to Pinter – this is very good indeed,” remarks Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★), while Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★) opines that “there have to be very few people alive – or indeed dead – who understand Pinter in the way Lloyd does, and it shows.”
“Lloyd has scraped off all the surface accretions and, with the help of a devastating performance from Tom Hiddleston, uncovers the raw passion and terror beneath,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★).
There are very few niggles. Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) complains that “occasionally, Lloyd’s flourishes lend too much portentousness to the simmering exchanges”, and Billington admits that he “hungered for a touch of domestic realism”.
Almost everyone, though, agrees with Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), who writes: “Funny, sharp, oddly nasty, and memorably anguished”, this is “an immensely satisfying conclusion” to Lloyd’s season.
Hiddleston’s stock has risen astronomically high in recent years, thanks largely to his role as Loki in Marvel’s Avengers movies and as the lead in the BBC’s John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager.
But he’s spared some time for theatre work, too – in 2013, he was Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, and in 2017, he was Hamlet in a Kenneth Branagh-directed RADA fundraiser.
He is, by pretty much all accounts, exceptional on his return as Robert here, supplying what Crompton calls “a performance full of easy charisma and intense truth” and what Cavendish heralds as a reassurance that he “has the theatrical acting chops to head up there among the greats”.
He “is superb in conveying Robert’s unhealed emotional wounds” for Billington, “displays a hypnotic sensitivity” for Cavendish, and “wields knowing amusement like a weapon” for Holly Williams (iNews, ★★★★).
“It’s Hiddleston’s poise and sensitivity that impress the most,” writes Hitchings. “There’s a brilliant scene that demonstrates his usually under-exploited flair for comedy: toying with Jerry over lunch in an Italian restaurant, he humiliates the feckless waiter, attacks his prosciutto as though fighting a duel, and gulps white wine like a bandit. Yet he’s also genuinely moving, and when he weeps his eyes and cheeks glisten with tears.”
There’s plenty of praise for his portrayal of subdued emotional trauma. “The moment when he stares silently at Emma, sadly and desperately, is wrenching”, writes Tripney.
“Hiddleston’s eyes are heartbreakingly wet,” agrees Lukowski, “Maybe he’s got some sort of clever trick or whatnot, but it’s a genuinely remarkable piece of acting, in a genuinely remarkable performance.”
“I had worried that the actor, 38, might come across as too well-spoken, too restrained but he doesn’t merely suggest the noxious, torturing impact of that title word, Betrayal, he seems to carry it in his bloodstream,” concludes Cavendish, while Taylor observes that Hiddleston’s “range is beginning to look pretty limitless”.
Alongside Hiddleston’s Robert are Zawe Ashton’s Emma and Charlie Cox’s Jerry. Ashton, familiar from Channel 4 comedy Fresh Meat, last appeared on stage in Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, and Cox, best known for playing the lead in Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil, worked with Lloyd in 2008 on the director’s revivals of Pinter’s The Lover and The Collection.
Both are good, according to the critics. Ashton “is a long, lithe, wriggling enigma torn between two men,” writes Partick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★), while Swain praises her for being “adept at conveying Emma’s slippery duplicity, her determinedly contained pain, and the cynical weariness of infidelity when it loses the sheen of romance”.
“Ashton also subtly brings out Emma’s capacity to love two men simultaneously,” writes Billington. “She suggests a free spirit yet one capable of exquisite tenderness: even when forced to confess her adultery, her hand gently traces Robert’s forearm as if softening the blow and reminding him that her passion is still intact.”
“She has brilliant timing, but also taut physical presence,” analyses Williams. “The way she stretches her neck towards Jerry like a plant towards the light suggests now neediness, now seductive interest.”
“Striking, ardent, confident, Ashton’s Emma could do with more enigma and less underlined brittleness, but catches the character’s ache and discontent well,” reckons Cavendish, as Hitchings admires how she “combines ardour with a vulnerable, fidgety uncertainty”.
“Cox acquits himself superbly as the down-to-earth best mate who behaves like a rotter, with cat-that-got-the-cream smiles and an awful sheepishness as it dawns on him that the others have played him for a fool,” Cavendish adds.
“Cox is very funny as the seemingly genial but deeply hypocritical Jerry, who protests when others betray his trust – wounded pride underscoring the fact that it’s knowledge, not sex, that holds true power here,” adds Swain, while Crompton lauds how he “rises brilliantly to the challenge of sitting absolutely still and speaking volumes while saying not a word”.
“His Jerry is a weak, charming man who seethes with the need to be loved, his constant half smile and warm eyes begging for forgiveness, absolution, understanding,” she concludes.
Yep – Lloyd’s revival of Betrayal has probably garnered the best reviews of this entire enterprise. Five-star ratings from the Independent, Time Out and London Theatre, and four-star reviews almost everywhere else suggest that Pinter at the Pinter’s final flourish is fairly fantastic.
Lloyd’s evident understanding of the playwright emerges in a searing staging, Ashton and Cox supply quality performances, and star-attraction Hiddleston is heaped with praise from all quarters. According to some critics, he’s well on his way to pre-eminence on both stage and screen.