Harold Pinter’s 1978 masterpiece Betrayal may be set in a privileged world, but Lloyd’s production (now running at the Harold Pinter Theatre) expertly conveys how betrayal can overwhelm us all.
Pinter’s masterpiece follows the lives of married couple Robert and Emma (Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton), and Jerry (Charlie Cox) – Robert’s best friend, and the man with whom Emma is having an affair.
Famously unfolding in reverse order, the play’s first scene features Emma and Jerry meeting for the first time since their affair ended two years ago, before Pinter takes us incrementally backwards in time, through various lunches and secret late-night meetings, to its very inception nine years earlier.
Despite the play’s setting of affluence (Robert and Jerry are publishers, while Emma runs an art gallery) Lloyd’s stripped back and starkly minimalist production emphasises the universality of these human experiences.
The set, consisting of a mostly blank white wall and a few chairs, acts as a canvas upon which we the audience can project ourselves, the only real remarkable elements being the revolving segments of the stage floor.
Their subtle rotation helps to illustrate both the passing of time (one of Lloyd’s ingenious ways of handling the play’s tricky chronology) and the characters’ emotional stasis or development. This is heightened through Lloyd’s choice to keep all three characters on stage throughout the majority of the play, even though Pinter’s scenes are mostly between two characters at a time.
The third ‘other’ is perpetually there, and they almost insist upon this presence, sometimes stood completely still at the back of the stage, or gradually moving as they almost eerily watch on. And when the name of the ‘other’ is mentioned, a subtle glance from the third party, or a movement of their head, reminds us that the betrayed individual is always very much there.
Ashton’s Emma in particular makes for a compelling ‘other’ in the scenes where she is typically absent. She creeps barefoot at the back of the stage, idly tracing patterns on the white backdrop while in the scene Robert and Jerry share one of their rapid, machismo-fuelled exchanges.
Much criticism towards Pinter takes aim at his depiction of women; however, Ashton refuses to let Emma be submerged in this masculine world. When she asks if she can take both men to lunch, it’s a surprisingly measured and assertive request, and in the final (but chronologically first) scene, her sense of choice and freedom is prominent.
But perhaps no one encapsulates their character’s emotional fluctuations more than Hiddleston, whether savagely attacking his dish of prosciutto e melone during dinner with Jerry, or quietly crying as his darkest suspicions are confirmed, or trying to assert dominance during quick-fire dialogue concerning a game of squash.
This is a role which Hiddleston has supposedly wanted to play since drama school, and you most definitely believe him when you see his eyes start to glisten with tears, visible even near the back of the stalls.
Though Hiddleston does have superb chemistry with Ashton, it is the tension between Robert and Cox’s Jerry which really bites and cuts. In one moment of beautiful timing and with masterful use of the rotating stage, they are positioned in such a way for their paths to intersect and for a burning stare to be shared with each other while Robert, the scene’s ‘absentee’, circles slowly around Jerry who embraces Emma.
It’s these seemingly simple (yet hugely telling) exchanges which make the multiple betrayals feel so raw and cutting. The production abounds in pauses and almost unbearable silences laden with the weight of the unspoken: Lloyd is highly conscious of the significance of what remains unsaid, and all three actors demonstrate remarkable restraint in allowing these silences to run their course.
Much like the third character’s presence on stage even in the scenes where they are absent, the lack of dialogue creates an undeniable sense of presence, pushing the unspoken to the forefront and leaving us to fill in the blanks.
These crushing absences, along with the actors’ spectacular chemistry and Lloyd’s brilliant attention to detail, make Betrayal a triumphant culmination of the ‘Pinter at the Pinter’ venture. This beautifully understated production allows us to see ourselves in every glance, every tear, ending the season not so much with a ‘bang’, but with all the poise, restraint and subtlety that Pinter’s masterpiece requires.