Betrayal is surely one of the chilliest words in the English language. It certainly feels that way in Ian Rickson’s wintry revival of Harold Pinter’s modern classic. The story of an affair told backwards (beginning in 1977, after it has ended, and finishing in 1968, with the first kiss), the play examines infidelity in forensic detail. The intricate structure is ingenious, making maximum use of dramatic irony, so that we see not just the big betrayals, but the multiple deceptions and countless tiny moments when words were left unsaid. In Rickson’s beautifully judged production, every scene is infused with bad faith. It is desperately sad.
The play is acted with pinpoint precision by the triangle of lovers: Emma; Robert, her husband; and Jerry, Robert’s oldest friend. Kristin Scott Thomas, as Emma, is luminously beautiful and subtly nuanced. She begins brilliantly in the awkward post-affair drink that launches the play. She and Jerry, her ex-lover, make embarrassed small talk, tiptoeing round the pot holes of remembered intimacy. When Jerry breaches protocol with a sudden endearment, she flinches as if stung, before recovering her strained poise.
The production charts the play’s other critical moments with the same devastating detail. The scene in which Robert discovers the affair is beautifully handled by Ben Miles. Hurt, but in control, he torments Emma with his slow revelation that he has found her out – then she tells him the length of the affair. Miles’ chest seems to collapse visibly, as his character struggles to reconfigure the past five years. Equally good is the power lunch between Robert and Jerry, in which Robert, rather than confront his friend, toys with him. Douglas Henshall, as Jerry, gradually replaces affable breeziness with sweaty-palmed panic as he tries to assess what Robert knows.
Such moments are excruciatingly good. The staging has weaknesses, however. It doesn’t convey a real sense of sexual chemistry between the lovers and the pace is too stately and slow, creating an unhelpful air of momentousness. But it draws out expertly the link between this and Pinter’s other work, particularly the fascination with power-play and with language as a tool to reveal, conceal and control.
Betrayal here means many things: sexual infidelity, disloyalty between friends, compromise of ideals. But we see with dismaying clarity how, above all, any betrayal undermines our sense of self, as it distorts the vital tools of memory, language and meaning.