Robert (Tom Hiddleston) is married to Emma (Zawe Ashton). Emma was having an affair with Jerry (Charlie Cox), who is married to the unseen Judith. And now Emma is having an affair with Casey, also unseen, a writer for whom Jerry is an agent and whom Robert publishes.
Just as Lionel Stander’s Max said at the beginning of every episode of Hart To Hart, “And when they met, it was moiiider.”
Betrayal, which Harold Pinter wrote in 1978, begins at the end; it is one of those stories—like Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which will soon become a film to be shot over a 20-year period by Richard Linklater—where reverse chronology is used to reveal characters and their pasts.
Everything in Jamie Lloyd’s hit London-transfer production at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which opened tonight (to December 8) unpeels—motivations, lies, moments of revelation, passion, antipathy, lust, love, guilt, and how this trio got where they are.
By the end, which is the beginning, we have come an imperfect circle. And there is always the missing, unseen Judith, whose absence—to me at least—signals this is more a play about men and their relationships, than the women in their lives.
Its source is a real-life scandal involving Pinter himself, who for many years had a love affair with Joan Bakewell, a British TV personality once known as “the thinking man’s crumpet,” on the sexist basis that she was best-known for covering high-minded topics on television while being attractive. (As the years went by, “the thinking woman’s crumpet” was coined for men of a similar ilk.)
At the time of their affair, both Pinter and Bakewell were married to other people (it was confirmed later by both parties), and while Pinter was writing the play he was having an affair with Antonia Fraser, who later became his wife. Really, it was a very high-class literati version of The Young and The Restless.
Here, the end is 1977, and Emma and Jerry are meeting up, nervously, two years after their affair of seven years ended. Emma reveals she has told Robert about their affair (little knowing Robert has known for years). It’s all very polite, with an undercurrent of exhaustion: so much has happened by now, and they are two people who know each other too well for the pleasantries they cannot go beyond. As Jerry says: “You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife.”
But there are landmines still, such as the age of Emma’s 5-year-old son, Ned, the timing of whose conception caused panic at the time (as we discover later in the play). And Jerry is terrified at Robert knowing everything (even though he has for some time).
The play is full of these landmines, and slippages in what people know, and what other people think they know. The play’s expansive speeches are few; mostly this is fast, glancing verbal tennis, digs, jabs, snarks, jokes, discoveries, and loaded silences. The tall Hiddleston looms over both Ashton and Cox; he has both a menace and a befuddled grace.
When Robert discovers the truth about the affair, it seems as if he may commit acts of violence; first against his wife and then against his best friend. But he holds her tight, and then subjects Jerry to a fraught lunch, scything at the food on his plate—prosciutto, melon, fried scampi and spinach, and a swimming pool-quantity of white wine—in a fury which Jerry thinks is just about a frustrating boat trip.
That moment comes in a part of Betrayal where, though the play is going backwards (here to 1973), it also goes forward in two follow-up scenes that year. So, we first see Robert discover the affair, and then two further scenes unfold with Emma and Jerry in the flat they maintain for their afternoon hook-ups; and then that weird lunch between the two men, with Robert knowing everything and Jerry not knowing he knows.
Pinter—and the brilliant trio of actors here—treat this uneasy dance as a particularly British game, where everyone is terrifically polite and sporting when they should be shouting, screaming and throwing suitcases out of windows. Instead, here a life-changing revelation is followed by a clipped inquiry into favorite books and summer holiday destinations.
There are real feelings and real peril here, but the men are more concerned about not playing squash, ever. Why can’t they? The men are competing, for what? Emma? (No, Jerry is mortified at damaging his friend’s marriage.) Literary glory, or at least cold, hard profit through Casey? To impress the other? To ace the other? Maybe all of that.
“I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that,” says Robert. “You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch. After all, you’ve been at it. You’ve had your battle. What you want is your pint and your lunch. You really don’t want a woman buying you lunch.”
Ashton is excellent as Emma—not willing to be either man’s easy adjunct, while questioning both relationships and their practiced duplicities—but Pinter does not seem as confident exploring why she does what she does, or what she feels, as he does toying with the boundaries and frailties of Jerry and Robert. The relationship-in-peril is Hiddleston and Cox’s. The squash game is their own long-deferred marital bed.
Thanks to Soutra Gilmour’s stunningly spartan scenic design and Jon Clark’s lighting there is a beautiful play of shadows on the walls of the characters, and because those shadows of bodies have their own physicality and relationship to one another, the emotional dance gains another perspective and depth.
The “betrayal” is not just between husbands and wives, but between the two male best friends—and Hiddleston and Cox bring a gruff, uneasy humor and a real sense of pain to the recognition of lifelong loyalties being sullied. There is a strong hint, not overplayed, of an actual attraction between these two supposedly straight men; could the real betrayal be that they are not together?
That could be over-reach, but there is certainly a beautiful, open elegance to Lloyd’s production that echoes its three supremely fine performances and a reading of the text that pinpoints all of Pinter’s wit, wordplay, and mordancy, while leaving a lovely breadth of interpretation open to the audience. We hear of the past joy of a child being thrown in the air; later in the play we see it.
There are spinning turntables, which send characters backwards in time. Apart from the odd chair, there is no real furniture. If one of the actors isn’t in a scene, they stay on stage. They don’t do anything as cheesy as react to things they cannot hear, but their expressions and sense of distance add to the scene. Eddie Arnold as an Italian waiter has the toughest job on stage—to bring some simple levity to the brooding drama. And he does it adeptly, looking askance, as we do, at the men he is serving.
Finally, we go back to 1968, to Jerry and Emma’s first kiss, to Robert not knowing anything, yet all three of them yoked together. Their arms knotted around each other’s shoulders, one senses—hopelessly—they will never be separated. Right at the end—really, right at the beginning—this doesn’t look like friendship or love, but a bruising, suffocating scrum.