REVIEW: Betrayal (Pinter at the Pinter) ★★★

Pinter’s forensic study of betrayal is a fitting 90-minute coda to Jamie Lloyd Company’s season Pinter At The Pinter, which looked back over the Nobel Prize winning playwright’s shorter works a decade after his death. The play is strongly autobiographical and based on a seven-year extramarital affair Pinter had with Joan Bakewell from 1962 to 1969. The story is told backwards, starting two years after the end of the affair, now in 1977, and wheeling back to its overtures in 1968.

The original National Theatre production in 1978 featured Penelope Wilton and Michael Gambon. Considered one of Pinter’s most important, innovative and influential works, it has been revived regularly, there was a 1983 film and it even inspired an episode of Seinfeld. In 2019 Jamie Lloyd’s nuanced direction and Soutra Gilmour’s minimalist design make for a subtle reading of the play, quietly seething and imbued with pain and longing. A little flat at times, it is nonetheless a Betrayal for an age when there are no heroes and everyone is bound together in shame.

Perhaps best known as the villain Loki in the Marvel Universe, Tom Hiddleston plays the literary publicist Robert with a measure of poised acerbity shot through with dented self-assurance. Zawe Ashton plays his wife Emma, who is having an affair with Robert’s best man Jerry, played by Charlie Cox. The production style tends to elicit barely articulated tensions rather than a strong sense of sexual magnetism between the characters. The trio’s carefully balanced reactions unfold in a hypnotic rhythm. In a scene later in the play (but earlier in the chronology) Hiddleston’s eyes gleam with tears as he sits, silent and still, in one of several memorable stage images evoking those typical themes of menacing proximity and frosty distance.

At first it feels like a radio play; many of the scenes are played seated. It picks up later with some anti-naturalistic touches. Reminiscent of a clock, the different orbits of the concentric circles of the revolving stage spin the actors in different directions away from and toward one another, a visual acceleration of the complex enchantment and disenchantment of their relationships. Robert holds his and Emma’s child in his arms, glaring at Jerry from outside the scene, at his best man, at his enemy. The play closes on a note of heightened ambiguity between lies and silences. The action is done but barely begun, the future unwritten and already burned up, yet to be played out yet but already, literally, played out. It is a strangely affecting, even haunting experience, a bittersweet taste of memory and regret.

Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Photo: Marc Brenner


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