The Pinter at the Pinter season – directed by Jamie Lloyd – draws to a fitting close with its first full-length play, and a real blockbuster: Betrayal, his 1978 work that tells, from end to beginning, the story of a seven-year long affair, loosely based on his own relationship with Joan Bakewell.
A blockbuster, of course, needs a heavyweight cast, and Betrayal delivers in spades: Zawe Ashton is art gallery owner Emma, Tom Hiddleston her publisher husband Robert and Charlie Cox his literary agent best friend, Jerry – who is also Emma’s lover.
In contrast to these riches, Soutra Gilmour’s set is sparse, pared down; in the centre of the floor is a circle, at the back one moveable wall, and there are minimal props – two chairs, a table, lots of drinks in glasses. It’s elegantly done, though the symbolism is not exactly subtle: the wall moves to the front during the oppressive scene when Emma reveals her affair to Robert; the circle rotates as the trio have cyclical conversations, ask questions they already know the answer to, get nowhere.
All three leads remain on stage throughout, sometimes in the background, sometimes physically touching, apparently watching, but silent. It’s a smart, effective way of rendering this intricate collective relationship, the way all three are complicit, both the betrayer and the betrayed.
Cox probably has the least to get his teeth into, he’s a pleasure to watch: relentlessly affable, but in brief moments almost acidic, deeply weary; his sozzled sincerity when he professes his love for Emma at a party is equal parts endearing and embarrassing.
Hiddleston, meanwhile, excels throughout. His urbane, literary, composed Robert experiences the emotional upheaval of his wife’s betrayal as something physical – when he meets Jerry for the first time after his discovery, he is all agitation, in contrast to his friend’s stillness; Robert gulps down wine, stabs his fork against the plate as he attempts to spear slices of ham and melon.
Ashton as Emma is magnetic, and seems to combine elements of both of her lovers – when she is in control she is statue-like, inscrutable; when she is confronted she trembles, fidgets. All three draw out the warmth in the dialogue while also finding the weight in the silences, and the unspoken questions in the recital of the usual middle-class banalities: how’s the wife? And the kids?
Lloyd’s stellar production is an engaging articulation of the many ways, large and small, in which we can betray not just others but ourselves, too – but there’s a tantalising suggestion of something beyond that, especially in the final scene, as all three figures, just for a moment, join hands.
Betrayal runs until 1 June at the Harold Pinter Theatre. See https://www.pinteratthepinter.com/the-plays/betrayal. Box office 0845 871 7615