The Jamie Lloyd Company
Harold Pinter Theatre
Following Jamie Lloyd’s heroic short play marathon, which eventually comprised seven programmes, his Pinter at the Pinter season closes with what many regard as the playwright’s finest work, Betrayal.
In normal circumstances, a 90-minute running time would seem brief but in the context of this project, the duration feels like good value for money.
As with almost every other play over the last six months also, Lloyd who directs has called in favours, recruiting a superb cast to relive the fictionalised version of a lengthy affair between Harold Pinter and the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, spiced up by the close friendship between the playwright and her husband Michael, a TV producer.
Following the latest trend, Lloyd and his designer Soutra Gilmour have pretty much given up on set design, leaving three actors wandering around on a pair of revolves with little more scenery than a pair of utilitarian chairs, although shadows are utilised with significant dramatic effect at times.
The intention is clearly to focus attention on the performers themselves from an opening scene in which Charlie Cox as literary agent Jerry and Zawe Ashton portraying his ex-lover, art dealer Emma, recollect the strongest emotions in tranquillity to an ending that becomes retrospectively poignant.
The genius of Pinter is seen in his decision to work chronologically but in reverse. As such, consequences observed in one scene can feed back to their sources earlier in time, the affair tracking back from a final bittersweet memory through tedium, love, passion to an initial drunken dalliance.
At the same time as observing Jerry and Emma, viewers are also able to see the ways in which they mislead Emma’s husband who just happens to be Jerry’s best friend, and working associate Robert, a role taken on this occasion by screen star Tom Hiddleston.
Much of the pleasure of the play comes in observing the ways in which each member of the trio deceives one or both of the others, sometimes almost for fun, often as a result of necessity.
Then, of course, there is the opportunity to deconstruct the play and try to spot the congruences with real-life amongst the bohemian set back in the 1960s. Having said that, this stark production is deliberately timeless, neither costumes nor the text making it clear that we are watching a re-enactment of real-life events that took place several decades in the past, the clothing suggesting an updating to the present time.
In addition to stripping this production of any sense of location—a London bar, a Kilburn love nest and a Venetian hotel all looking identical—Jamie Lloyd has also gone overboard to create Pinteresque effects.
The characteristic silences sometimes feel as if they are going to stretch to infinity, although the acting in between is outstanding, every facial expression clearly influenced by the detailed interpretation of the director.
This is an unconventional reading of a wonderful play and, while it highlights aspects of the writing and strong emotions felt by all three characters, the question has to be asked as to whether playing it in a more conventional fashion might have had an even stronger impact.