Harold Pinter’s Betrayal is a play that’s easier to admire than to love. Structurally, it’s masterful, charting the emotional fallout from a seven-year extramarital affair in reverse chronological order, starting at the bitter end and rewinding to the first, snatched kiss. It’s a sharply-honed study of affluent people wounding each other.
As with his ambitious season of the playwright’s short works, Jamie Lloyd proves once again that he knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to Pinter – this is very good indeed.
Betrayal boasts top-drawer casting in Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox. Emma (Ashton) and Jerry (Cox), both married, are having an affair, complicated by the fact that Emma’s husband Robert (Hiddleston) also happens to be Jerry’s oldest friend.
All three actors are at ease with the rhythms of Pinter’s language and at filling the spaces between their words with meaning, be it loss, longing or recrimination. There’s an ease and chemistry between them as a company.
Lloyd’s production is exceptionally controlled, nailing every beat, while also bringing out from the text a surprising amount of humour and warmth, finding laughs even in its bleaker moments. During each exchange between the couples, the third person watches on, glass in hand, emphasising the triangular nature of the relationship. Three lives intertwined.
Hiddleston is disconcertingly convincing as the kind of man who casually talks about giving his wife a bashing and who is a total bastard to waiters yet is also capable of being charming and perceptive. He’s a very responsive performer, at his best when interacting with others, and he’s pretty remarkable here; the moment when he stares silently at Emma, sadly, desperately, is wrenching.
The scene in Venice when Emma confesses her infidelity to him is one of intimacy and tenderness. Hiddleston and Ashton sit side by side, regret and remorse written on their faces, eyes glittering with tears. They do not lose their tempers. It feels as if this is the first time they’ve been honest with each other in ages.
Cox is superficially amiable as Jerry, while never letting you forget he’s the kind of schmuck who would come on to his best friend’s wife at a party. When he and Robert guzzle white wine over lunch, unaware that his friend knows about his deception, the scene is charged with aggression and affection. Ashton plays well off both of them and captures the little cracks in Emma’s facade. It’s just the play feels less interested in her motivations than theirs.
In another moving moment, Lloyd’s production introduces one of Robert and Emma’s children on stage, a reminder that four kids are caught up in all this – that it’s not just the adults’ hearts on the line.
It all plays out against Soutra Gilmour’s achingly tasteful, minimalist set – an ecru canvas, beautifully lit by Jon Clark, that slowly moves forward, intensifying the claustrophobia. The coolness of it all means that some of the play’s emotional potency is diluted, but it’s always gripping – and superbly performed, particularly by Hiddleston.