Betrayal - Theatre Review

Rating: 5

By Ian Shuttleworth

Back in the autumn, I reviewed the beginning of a season of all Harold Pinter’s one-act plays, directed by Jamie Lloyd, in the West End theatre named after him. (It used to be the Comedy Theatre: Tom Stoppard allegedly once joked to Pinter – who had been campaigning for the name change before his death – that it would be easier if he changed his name to Harold Comedy.) Six months, 19 plays and a bunch of short sketches later, the all-star season featuring everyone from Antony Sher to Danny Dyer now draws to a close with his 1978 masterpiece Betrayal.

Pinter wasn’t the first, but may well have been the greatest, writer to use reverse chronology. In the first scene we see Jerry and Emma meeting two years after their seven-year affair ended; Emma reports that her marriage to Jerry’s best friend, Robert, is probably over. Then we move back a couple of years, and so on, until the play ends 90 minutes later with Jerry’s first drunken declaration of infatuation. It gives us a kind of foresight, because at each stage of the affair we know how things are going to turn out, what will be the upshot of the trio’s thoughts, feelings, actions… of their betrayals.

The title doesn’t just mean betrayal by sexual infidelity, but also betrayal of secrecy and trust… who knows what, and when, and how long before they actually say a word about it, also become matters of significance. Pinter being Pinter, it’s all written (and staged by Lloyd) with a marvellous economy. Just as I was thinking that a conversation was unfolding like a championship chess match, a sound effect of ticking began, as if timing the interval until the next move.

Tom Hiddleston is a first-rate actor, but I’d never quite put the pieces together before. He’s a master technician: he knows exactly how little he needs to do, and how to convey the precise twist of nuance he intends. Normally I admire actors like that but can seldom bring myself to love them. Watching Hiddleston as Robert, though, I realised that what he does with this deliberation and detail is to feed it back into his character: sometimes it suggests heroic self-control, sometimes a kind of arrogant playfulness (as with his role as Loki in the Thor and Avengers movies), but it’s always an integral part of his portrayal.

The excellent Zawe Ashton does a bit of the same as Emma, but is more comfortable when either playing the emotions explicitly or buttoning everything up, as in that agonising first-but-latest scene. Hiddleston’s fellow Marvel alumnus Charlie Cox (who took the title role in the TV series of Daredevil) makes Jerry more straightforward, but less accomplished an emotional fencer than either. It’s a beautiful, magnetic ending to a fine season.

♦ Until 8 June at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1Y, 0845-871 7615,