It’s been a hell of a year for Harold Pinter fans. Over seven productions, director Jamie Lloyd resurrected dozens of the playwright’s one-act works, many of which hadn’t been performed in decades. That series ended last month, but Lloyd, now surely the world’s go-to Pinter guy, has lost none of his enthusiasm, following it up with an incisive production of one of Pinter’s best-known plays, Betrayal.
Compared to some of the Pinter’s more overtly absurd pieces, Betrayal is relatively straight-forward, a tense psychodrama charting a love triangle between three friends. It brings together heavyweights Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager, Thor), Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat, Velvet Buzzsaw) and Charlie Cox (Daredevil, The Theory of Everything), who play literary agent Robert, his wife Emma, and his colleague-turned-rival Jerry, respectively.
Robert and Emma’s marriage is on the rocks, in part because she had been sleeping with Jerry for seven years, with such frequency that they own a flat together. Robert is surprisingly sanguine about this, but Jerry is furious that Emma had the temerity to tell her husband. Pinter then peels back the layers of deception, travelling backward in time, showing how the titular betrayal is actually a thousand smaller betrayals, lies built on lies.
There are laugh-out-loud moments – when Robert finds out about the flat, his middle class instinct is to ask “Oh... is it nice?” – but this isn’t an easy play, with each revelation coming like a gut punch. Conversations are both intimate and awkward, with language seeming insufficient to describe the range of emotions.
When one character leaves the action, they rarely leave the stage, instead pacing slowly in the background, there but not there, an absent presence. The minimalist set, bare but for some movable walls and a couple of chairs, only heightens the suffocating sense of claustrophobia. Hiddleston is particularly good, aloof but fragile, his gangly form making him seem even more alone, a sad lighthouse in a tawdry sea.
Lloyd’s earlier series showed that you don’t need to litter Pinter’s works with endless pauses, but here the trademark device is deployed to brutal effect, the stage falling unbearably silent during virtually every exchange, allowing the terrible actions of these terrible people to really sink in.
Pinter’s dissection of infidelity cuts deep, and this production brings it painfully to life. It’s a must-see, unless you happen to be having marital problems.