“I don’t think we don’t love each other”
Spread over nine years, 1968 to 1977 to be precise, Betrayal traces the affair between Emma who is cheating on her husband Robert with his best friend Jerry but tells the story in reverse, starting two years after it ended and working its way back to how it all started but exposing the many other betrayals that have plagued the lives of all three protagonists. Harold Pinter’s 1978 play took inspiration from his own extra-marital activities and was seen in London as recently as 2007 at the Donmar but this Ian Rickson-directed production is most notable for marking the return of the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas to the London stage along with co-stars Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was offered the chance to see this preview from the dress circle which was nice (though I was surprised at how little leg-room there was).
Full disclosure here, I love Kristin Scott Thomas I really do: she epitomises elegance for me but I most admire how she has really embraced her bi-lingual position, mixing intriguing French film work in with her English-language performances to develop into a most interesting actress of confounding depth. And here at the Comedy Theatre she displays a delightful girlishness and emotional vulnerability at times which is unlike anything I’ve seen her do: the jealousy in her eyes as Jerry talks of his wife and her fulfilling life is a wonderfully sparky moment. Ben Miles has a fine commanding masculinity about his performance and Douglas Henshall has the most, if not all, of the witty charisma of his jet-setting literary agent. To these ears (which have largely avoided Pinter to be honest) the dialogue sounded impressively natural, as opposed to the poised theatricality exemplified by Deborah Findlay and David Bradley in the recent Moonlight, though I am no unsure what the intended effect here is or indeed if Pinter’s writing in these plays can be so directly compared.
But for a work that is lauded as a modern classic and one of Pinter’s finest works, I found myself quite disappointed with the play. Compared to say Moonlight, it is positively straightforward which I was most thankful for but there’s little to no insight on offer here, indeed it ultimately feels more like an apologia for infidelity and there was just too much left undeveloped. Clearly there’s something of an abstract exercise in a play that is essentially fragments of a story winding back in time, but there were big gaps that left me unsatisfied. Jerry’s wife Judith has no voice despite being as impacted as Robert; the moment that the play ultimately builds up to is severely underwhelming, the first act of betrayal seemingly coming far too easily; but most significantly, there’s no interrogation of why or how Jerry could compromise this precious relationship with his best friend, as he often describes him himself, in such an unforgivable way with nary a blink of an eye.
Jeremy Herbert’s design allows for the fluid movement of the set from location to location but it did create disarmingly huge spaces at times which Rickson didn’t always fill effectively, the Venice balcony being quite weak. But I did like Stephen Warbeck’s moody music which accompanied the scene transitions, the year being projected onto the back wall through a gauze curtain to guide us through the chronology. There’s some fantastically ugly 70s clothing (plus a gorgeous magenta dress) and a very threatening bedspread. And I was really impressed with the structuring of the play, at two significant moments the rewind button is released and we actually play forward for a couple of scenes to really play out the drama and generate some emotional involvement. All in all, I just don’t think Pinter and I get on, Betrayal left me feeling a little ambivalent – I didn’t come out of the theatre feeling like I’d gained anything revelatory about the experience of infidelity. Still, a great opportunity to see one of our most interesting actresses live on stage though.