For a play about adultery, Betrayal is pretty light on between-the-sheets action. There’s no cat-and-mouse seduction over dinner or heart-racing quickie among the office filing cabinets; not for Harold Pinter the titillation of playing away. He’s more interested in the vulnerability of infidelity, what’s at stake when you hinge your happiness on a story you’ve created as an alternative to your marriage. None of the characters here is innocent and their capacity for betraying each other with a word or a look is far greater than that of deed alone.
It’s 1977. A woman, Emma, sits by herself, self-contained and poised, uneasy, in a pub. She’s joined by Jerry, who’s carrying a glass of wine and a pint of beer. He sets down the drinks and perches on the edge of his seat, hesitant but needy. They engage in faltering small talk, taking mouthfuls of alcohol like gulps of air. It’s been two years since they’ve seen each other and they’ve fallen out of rhythm; the notes of their conversation jar.
Eventually, Emma tells Jerry that she’s separating from her husband, his best friend and squash partner, Robert, after an argument the previous night. And to his shock, she reveals that she told Robert about their seven-year affair (now ended) at the same time. But this isn’t true – as an increasingly desperate Jerry learns when he invites Robert to his house for a drink later that evening. Coldly, he’s informed that Emma shared their secret many years ago. From this point the play moves backwards in time; unspooling the events that have led to this chillingly calm confrontation.
As Pinter peels back the years to 1969, we watch with a thrill of anticipation the cracks appear that will bring down the house of cards in which Emma, Jerry and Robert have lived for the best part of a decade. Although Emma’s confession of her affair to Robert while on holiday in Italy in 1973 brings to light one type of betrayal, a more damaging kind is the deceit that follows. Robert doesn’t tell Jerry that he knows and neither does Emma; the one to preserve his marriage and his pride, the other to sustain the illusion of domestic bliss that she’s created in the apartment where she and Jerry meet during weekday afternoons.
Pinter’s distinctive style, much imitated, exaggerated and parodied over the years, is highly effective here. His dislocated syntax, long pauses and surreal exchanges are a perfect fit for three people bound together by omission and evasion. This works particularly well during the scene in which Robert, in full knowledge of his wife’s affair, invites Jerry round for a drink and traps him into having to explain why he thinks boys cry more than girls when they’re born. The icy relentlessness of Robert’s absurd volley of questions, which he bats with precision-force at Jerry while Emma sits awkwardly between them, is as gripping to watch as it is painful. The stilted silences are deafening in their eloquence.
The cast excel in moments like this, carefully pitching their performances so as to keep things dramatically interesting while preserving the believability of Jerry’s surprise in the first scene. In particular, Ben Miles takes the tricky role of Robert and succeeds in conveying the impotent rage bubbling under the surface without giving the game away to his erstwhile best friend. As time rewinds, his expression softens and his voice loses the edge that makes it so frighteningly possible to believe that the hollowed-out man we meet at the start of the play is capable of beating his wife. As Emma, Kristin Scott Thomas is elegant in her sadness, wearing on her face a lifetime of dashed hopes and missed opportunities. Only Douglas Henshall occasionally struggles to find the right tone with Jerry, someone who betrays himself as surely as he lets Emma down by refusing to act on his feelings for her by leaving his wife.
Director Ian Rickson has produced a nuanced and thoughtful production of Pinter’s disquieting play in which the truth lies in the spaces between words. The only problem is that the revolving set for Jerry and Emma’s apartment is too bare and the wallpaper too shabby. It shouldn’t look like a shady hotel room; it represents Emma’s fantasy of a better life willed into reality and should teem with knick-knacks. One Italian table-cloth isn’t enough. After all, this is a relationship about the afternoon, not the night-time.
(At Comedy Theatre, from 27 May to 20 August)
First published by Exeunt Magazine