Jerry and Robert have been friends from their youth. One is a publisher and the other a literary agent. Jerry has had a 7 year affair with Robert's wife, Emma, but at the start of the play, the affair has been over for some time. 'Betrayal' is unusual in that it is sequenced in reverse chronological order. Well, not quite the whole of it, but for the most part. So, it starts with Jerry and Emma meeting again in 1977, some years after their affair ended, and then proceeds to page back through time in a series of flashbacks. This reverse chronology is nothing new these days, particularly in films, but was innovative in 1978 when Harold Pinter wrote it.
The play is apparently based on Pinter's extra-marital affair with TV presenter, Joan Bakewell between 1962 and 1969. In this new, riveting production directed by Ian Rickson, Emma is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, Jerry by Douglas Henshall and Robert by Ben Miles. It's a superb cast who really are mesmerising. Kristin Scott Thomas has a distinct resemblance to Joan Bakewell, both in looks as well as her speech which adds a sense of intrusive reality. But the real joy of watching her performance is in her facial expressions and mannerisms especially in the first scene where she is sitting at a table in a pub. Ben Miles is a steely Robert who barely suppresses his rage, particularly in the scene in Torcello when he learns of his wife's affair with his 'best friend'. Douglas Henshall has the casual, charming smile of a salesman until his emotional armour is breached.
Betrayal in this play takes place on many different levels. Jerry betrays his wife, Emma her husband. They betray each other, and Jerry betrays his friend Robert, who also betrays Jerry by not telling him that he knew about the affair. The latter kind of betrayal seems to Pinter at least to have been the most profound as we witness when Jerry discovers that Robert has known about the affair 'for years'. No doubt you'll find other examples of betrayal lurking under the surface.
In the programme notes, an extract from the diary of Lady Antonia Fraser (Pinter's second wife) recalls a visit to Torcello during which they read this play with Pinter taking the role of Robert, which he said was the best part. I think that's incredibly revealing, because watching this play you can almost feel that Robert and Pinter have many similarities and I think the creative team saw that too. In fact, it set me wondering if, when writing the play, Pinter saw himself as Robert, rather than Jerry. As the master of avoiding the obvious, that would fit.
You don't often get revivals as satisfying and rewarding to watch as this. The direction is perfect, the acting wonderful and the power of the play is revealed in all it's detailed complexity. Jeremy Herbert's intelligent and innovative design leaves the bed in the background for most of the piece, and the numerous change of scenes - restaurant, pub, home, flat, Torcello - are created with panels swinging into view while the characters remain in place, for example pondering letters. And Stephen Warbeck's excellent piano score tops-off the mood and tone elegantly and poignantly.
You won't leave the theatre trying to unravel the meaning of the story as you might if you had been to see 'The Birthday Party' or 'The Homecoming'. 'Betrayal' is more understandable on one level, but just as complex and demanding on many others. Unmissable!
"Excellent revival...This is the best account that I have seen of Pinter's 1978 play...A haunting performance in a terrific revival."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Those who know the play well will find new meanings in this revival; and those who don't will be ushered into a world where pain and loss are explored with poetic precision."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The tautness of Pinter's writing is not well served in Rickson's production."
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard
"Superb new production...The play’s mixture of wit and emotional truth never stales and Rickson’s production is the finest I have seen of Pinter’s masterpiece...And the acting is virtuously flawless throughout."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Ian Rickson directs with confidence and the show is worth seeing.
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail