Betrayal [noun] : the act of betraying someone or something; treachery.
When the curtains open at the start of a play to reveal a minimalistic set with little to no props there are only two possible outcomes: either it will be painfully high-brow, or, if you’re lucky (and the script and actors are good), it will make you want to shout from the rooftops about how great it is.
Thankfully, Jamie Lloyd’s production of Harold Pinter’s famous 1978 play, Betrayal, fell into the second category. And with a three-person cast made up of Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat, Nocturnal Animals), and Charlie Cox (Downton Abbey, The Theory of Everything), why wouldn’t it have?!
I’m not ashamed to admit that it was Tom Hiddleston’s presence on the cast list that convinced me to book tickets, but, having now watched the play, my reasons for recommending it go way beyond his involvement. Although, his performance really is outstanding; to quote Michael Billington for the Guardian, ‘Hiddleston, especially, is superb in conveying [the] unhealed emotional wounds’ of his character.
Anyway, enough fangirling!
As the play’s name reveals, the plot revolves around the theme of betrayal; focusing on the complexities and emotional fall out caused by a long-term affair between Robert’s wife, Emma (Ashton), and his best friend Jerry (Cox).
Harold Pinter famously reverses chronology in the play, opening with a meeting between Emma and Jerry two years after their relationship ended, and then backtracking in time to the start of the affair. The technique makes for a captivating performance. Rather than a traditional plot-line in which you are given time to understand the reasonings for an affair, in Betrayal you are thrown in at the deep end, unsure of who to side with.
This uncertainty is added to in Lloyd’s production by the fact all three characters are always on stage together. The unusual staging emphasising the fact that in an affair the third person is never truly absent.
It makes for some awkward theatre - whenever Emma and Jerry are together, you’re aware of Robert’s presence in the background, and vice versa. It’s difficult to be supportive of a couple’s intimacy when their husband/lover is sitting in the adjacent chair!
But that’s what makes the play so incredible.
As an audience member, you’re made to feel uncomfortable, you find yourself laughing at things out of awkwardness and you’re forever unsure about who is in the wrong and who out of the three initiated the betrayal. Tabitha and I agreed that all of them had betrayed and been betrayed in slightly different ways, but you might draw a different conclusion.
Despite the apparent seriousness of the play’s subject, it is surprisingly funny and incredibly enjoyable. A consequence of not just Harold Pinter’s writing talent, but also of Lloyd’s insightful adaption and some truly first-class acting.
Which explains why they’ve extended the run!
You can watch it at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London until 8 June.