Betrayal seems to be the word of the moment, particularly in politics. It’s therefore rather refreshing that for a writer as political as Pinter, his most well-known play is all about the personal.
Clocking in at barely 90 mins, it’s a succinct and claustrophobic portrayal of three lives in crisis – with no obvious resolution.
The play starts at the point where two now-estranged lovers are looking back on their seven-year affair, their sparse dialogue laced with tenderness and regret. Literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox), proud of how well they covered up their dalliance, is mortified to discover that gallery owner Emma (Zawe Ashton) has confessed all to her publisher husband Robert (Tom Hiddleston). Not only that, her husband has known for years, and seems unruffled – possibly because he has been staunchly unfaithful himself. The scenes tick backwards, tracing the betrayal from its most intense to the drunken night that led to its inception. The characters wrestle with boredom, guilt, desire and repression, with thwarted career aspirations and faltering relationships marking every step.
For anyone mourning the cancellation of Daredevil, take comfort – Cox has been freed up to play a more subdued but no less profound role than that of Matt Murdock, and his sexual rapport with Ashton, who brilliantly walks the line between restraint and longing, crackles with electricity.
For those who last saw Tom Hiddleston tread the boards as Hamlet or Coriolanus, this is a world away from Shakespeare. The great triumph of Pinter seems to be his ability to capture how much English people excel at talking about nothing at great length, with an unspoken, but palpable sense of dysfunction and violence never far from the surface. Hiddleston’s Robert captures this brilliantly; one memorable lunch scene, where Jerry and his best friend mingle in the wake of Robert having guessed the details of his wife’s antics, shows the latter talking rather forcefully about an uneventful trip to Torcello, his face flushing red as he shouts at the waiter to bring more wine. Jerry, unawares, looks on in bemusement.
This seems to be Hiddleston’s forte. Much like The Deep Blue Sea’s Freddie Page and The Night Manager’s Jonathan Pine, Robert occupies that very English third space, one where people can only go so deep before they shut off to the emotional needs of those closest to them. For Pine, the hotel worker-turned-spy, this is his great strength. For Robert, it turns out to be his undoing. For his wife and best friend, the many-layered betrayal at the heart of the story is their salvation, even if it means that in an emotional sense, they both end up alone.
Swift, intimate, and deeply uncomfortable, this is essential viewing for 2019. I never thought I’d root for the philanderers.
Betrayal plays at the Harold Pinter theatre in London until 1st June.