Betrayal marks the culmination of Pinter at the Pinter, a unique season of Harold Pinter’s one-act plays, marking ten years since the death of the Nobel Prize winner, all performed in the theatre that bears his name.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, Betrayal is one of the most personal of Pinter’s works and follows the events of a seven-year affair in reverse, focusing not on what happens but on how the events evolve. Tom Hiddleston plays Robert, a publisher whose wife Emma (Zawe Ashton) is first seen meeting Jerry (Charlie Cox) long after their affair has ended.
Whilst the two are awkwardly conversing, we are conscious of Robert’s brooding figure lurking in the background, a device that is carried through the play as it rewinds in typical Pinter fashion. When Emma first tells Robert of her affair, Jerry sits solemnly to the side of the couple, and later when Robert and Jerry have lunch, Emma is behind the two friends as a constant reminder of her presence in both of their minds.
This endless trio emphasises not only the deep pain and betrayal felt by each character, but their entwined intimacy; husband and wife, lovers, and friends. Pinter’s infamous pauses gives us ample time to observe the absent partner and when combined with the stark staging and striking use of shadows, is hauntingly mesmeric.
Naturally, Hiddleston is the huge draw to this play and although his performance is more restrained than those of Coriolanus or Hamlet, it’s no less impressive. At first Robert seems smooth, self-assured and alarmingly charming, despite his admission to smacking his wife. But behind this facade is an abundance of emotional wounds and when Emma tells him of her affair with Jerry, his exquisite silence and immovable stare is achingly moving.
Yet his unappreciated talent for comedy is just as remarkable. In one superb scene, Robert meets Jerry for lunch, fully aware of the affair, whilst Jerry still believes it to be a secret. Without revealing what he knows, Robert proceeds to toy with Jerry whilst humiliating the incompetent waiter, drinking an inordinate amount of wine and relieving his anger by brutally stabbing the melon on his plate.
Hiddleston masters this controlled madness with precision, and whilst there is ample humour in him filling numerous glasses of wine to the rim and stabbing his with food such force that it is propelled off his plate, we can’t help but feel his deep pain at the betrayal, not only of his wife, but that of his best friend.
Cox’s Jerry, although duplicitous and remorseless, is likeable and very adept at appearing sincere. From his very first drunken flirtation with Emma to his altercations with alpha male Robert, he unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve and it’s not difficult to see why Emma is drawn to him.
Initially, Emma appears cold and aloof, but this is soon explained as we learn of Robert’s misogynistic, abusive and adulterous behaviour. In the company of Jerry, Emma’s demeanour warms and she shares some heartfelt moments with him. Although fleeting, Ashton portrays these with great sensitivity, whilst subtly revealing Emma’s vulnerability and anxiety surrounding the situation.
In Lloyd’s minimalist production every intricate detail speaks volumes. The performances are so precisely calculated that every pause, every glance and every touch is filled with such intense psychological complexity, that the agony of the deceit cannot be escaped. This quietly elegant interpretation remains faithful to Pinter’s work but is a compelling revival of a modern classic that feels remarkably relevant. Numerous forms of betrayal are brought into being, but ultimately it’s the characters’ self-deception that prevails.
Betrayal runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 8th June. Get Betrayal tickets here!
Guest written by Eleanor Hamilton.