Review: Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre

Published in the i March 13, 2019

The end of Jamie Lloyd’s season of Pinter plays comes crowned in stars: Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox perform Pinter’s 1978 play. It’s eye-catching casting, and they deliver in Lloyd’s diamond-sharp production.

We begin at the end of the affair. Or maybe the end of the marriage: Robert (Hiddleston) has confessed to his wife Emma (Ashton) he’s been unfaithful. We hear this because she is telling Jerry (Cox) – Robert’s best friend, but also the man she had her own affair with for seven years. Jerry believes Robert’s only just found out about that too; actually, he’s known for years.

Pinter’s masterful study in intimate deception then steps backs repeatedly, showing us the arc of a love affair in reverse – and throughout offers such rug pulls, as well as unnerving hindsight. The whole thing ripples and bulges with subtext: things known but unacknowledged, things unsaid yet heard loud and clear. You wince as you watch.

Lloyd has consummate control of each beat, each micro betrayal, how every truth or lie slices deep or shallow. The staging is stark, the set simple – just three walls of a pinkish fake marble, mostly offering a morose depth of field, occasionally pressing in claustrophobically. Whichever two characters are having their terse, tense interactions, the third lurks or looms. Maybe in the background, watchful even if unseeing; maybe moving past on a revolve, unseen yet accusatory.

This is no series of duets, then – it’s an endless trio, a constant tripling of love and one-up-man-ship. It’s precise, every gesture and look pointed. Lloyd’s sometimes hectic stylistic dash as a director feels potently distilled here into something clear, and deadly.

The downside is that it’s chilly. The three characters throw devastatingly accurate darts, know exactly how to pierce and wound each other, but what you don’t get a lot of is why they wanted to get close enough to hurt each other in the first place; you feel their pain, less so their love.

But the performances are superb. Cox is maybe too blandly amiable – I didn’t really believe his seduction of Emma – but the smirking smoothness of his bare-faced lies to his best friend seem to speak to the world of trained, competent privilege they occupy (the men work in publishing, Emma in art; they holiday in Italy and endlessly lunch).

Ashton starts consumed by fake-but-real smiles – too effusive, but intentionally so, that being the game – that are completely familiar, typifying a certain kind of upper-middle class woman being performatively charming. She has brilliant timing, but also taut physical presence: the way she stretches her neck towards Jerry like a plant towards the light suggests now neediness, now seductive interest.

Hiddleston wields knowing amusement like a weapon – but when the emotion comes, oh my god it really floods. There’s an astonishing, long-held moment when he looks at Ashton – his brow somehow a repository for years of bruised tenderness. In a silence, his eyes fill with tears, and it barely feels like acting at all. In moments such as this, Betrayal does illuminate the heart.

Where next?