Betrayal review, Harold Pinter Theatre: Tom Hiddleston excels in searching Pinter revival
Jamie Lloyd directs an exceptionally thoughtful production of this time-reverse play
The vast majority of us were not successful in getting tickets for Kenneth Branagh's fundraiser for Rada in which Tom Hiddleston played Hamlet. What could possibly be a consolation prize for missing that? Well, this as it happens. In a modern classic, the actor shows off, to my mind, his classical theatre chops too. His range is beginning to look pretty limitless; Hiddleston excels in a brilliant performance as Robert, the publisher who is cuckolded by the seven-year affair between his wife Emma (Zawe Ashton) and his best friend, literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox).
Pinter's play famously charts the couple's seven-year affair in reverse order, jumping backwards from the gossipy aftermath in 1977 to its opening moments in 1968 that are deliberately confusing, counterpointed by the clumsy expression of a desire to accommodate intense male friendship within heterosexual marriage. Crowning his superlative six-month Pinter season at this address, Jamie Lloyd directs an exceptionally thoughtful and searching revival of this time-reverse play.
There's a very good movie version, made in 1983 by David Jones and with a starry cast: Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge. The acting is beautiful, benefiting from the availability of close-ups, but film sometimes imposes the wrong kind of realism. Between scenes there are outdoor establishing shots of the various locations (the Kilburn love nest, for example), and Ms Hodge's hair and wigs are distractingly adjusted to keep the character in period. That's not the way of Betrayal. If anything, Lloyd errs in the opposite direction. The accent is strongly on these three characters forming an ideal triangle that is maimed and dislocated by adultery. In two-hander scenes, the third skulks uninvited around the periphery: the same line of dialogue can simultaneously close one scene and initiate another. It's a collaborative business as objects are pointedly passed from one period to another in this dance to the music of time.
I never felt, though, that time was being gone through backwards and there are some slow sequences where you long for the pace to pick up. Hiddleston, though, is magnificent in both of Robert's main phases. Arguably, the two best scenes in Betrayal are an exception to the backwards rule, moving consecutively forward. In the first, while on holiday with his wife in Venice, he deduces that she and Robert are having an affair from a letter in his friend's handwriting that is awaiting her at American Express. Men have done more merciful things with a garotte than use it in the way Robert insinuates to Emma that he knows. But he also shows you a man who has been broken by the news and now seeks almost maternal physical reassurance. “Where does it... take place?” he asks not with a shudder of disgust but with a tremulous primness that could be envy.
The following scene in which, without revealing what he knows, he lets Jerry have it every which way over lunch in an Italian restaurant, is one of the funniest things Pinter wrote, and the controlled madness of Hiddleston's assault demonstrates what a startlingly good comedian he has become. He pours Jerry glasses of Corvo Bianco so far up to the rim that he'd need three hands to convey them to his mouth, he insinuates that Emma loves the writing of his client Spinks only because it is the nearest thing to sniffing Jerry's underpants and he goes into an attack on English prose that that is almost barkingly military in its loony detestation.
I wrote in my notebook “Must play Leontes” (The Winter's Tale's tragic hero who succumbs to a deranged jealousy). But then, in a way, Hiddleston is already playing him. In a piece that I wrote earlier about Betrayal, I claimed that this Lloyd production runs for 28 performances. In fact, blessedly, it will have 101. Don't let them go to waste.
To 1 June, 0844 871 7622