Tom Hiddleston is clearly a really nice guy. He’s on-stage for a straight 90 minutes in Harold Pinter’s 1978 classic, Betrayal, and follows with autograph signing and selfie-taking with the hordes of fans who wait for him at the Harold Pinter Theatre stage door. So, it’s with a heavy heart than I tell you that I didn’t really like Betrayal. There’s some fine acting, but it’s all a bit of a yawn.
I was expecting a theatrical jackpot. After all, Betrayal has some of the finest ingredients on the theatre market: Jamie Lloyd is in the directing chair, it’s one of Pinter’s finest plays, and it’s got a sexy casting including heartthrob-who-needs-no-introduction Hiddleston, Daredevil’s Charlie Cox and English talent, Zawe Ashton. The play is the final production in a six-month star-studded line-up marking the ten years since Pinter’s death. We’ve had David Suchet, Martin Freeman, Keith Allen, Jane Horrocks, Rupert Graves, Gary Kemp, Lee Evans, Penelope Wilton and Celia Imrie. And now, we have Tom.
Based on Pinter’s real-life affair with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, Betrayal traces the clandestine love affair of gallery owner, Emma (Ashton) and literary agent Jerry (Cox). Joining the love triangle is cuckolded husband and best friend, Robert (Hiddleston).
It’s told in reverse chronological order over a period spanning nine years and in nine scenes. It opens in 1977, two years after the end of the affair. Emma reveals that she has just told Robert about her extramarital dalliances with his best friend. Fast forward, and we find out that Robert has been aware of the affair for some time and doesn’t seem to give a jot about it. Robert and Jerry no longer play squash together, marking the end of their great friendship. The play leapfrogs to pivotal moments in the affair, all the way to Venice and eventually to London in 1968 when Jerry first declares his love for Emma.
It’s all very British, everyone behaving properly even if the behaviour is improper. It’s a play that’s frugal with words but loaded with pregnant pauses. It relies on what is not said rather than what is being said. The betrayals creep in and out of each of the characters, although our sympathies lie with Robert, until he reveals that he bashed his wife up.
In a world without mobile phones and laptops, affairs were a lot more complicated, or perhaps simpler depending on which way you looked at it. You couldn’t send a quick Whatsapp informing your lover you were on your way. Amorous shenanigans were performed the old-fashioned way, via phone boxes and love pads. And so, it seems incongruous to have the slick, minimalist and unashamedly contemporary staging that accompanies this story from a bygone era. Suddenly, the play seems dated.
The acting is flawless, but there’s a lack of sexual tension between the actors. This play is a polite game of Scrabble instead of covert doctors and nurses. I suddenly find myself pining for some old leather sofas, over-stuffed bookshelves, cigarette smoke and a dishevelled bed. This twenty-first century version of Betrayal is sleek and chic, but I feel like I’ve just ingested Kool-Aid. Even if it has a smoking hot actor in it.
Betrayal is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 1 June, with limited availability.
A final note: don’t be in a hurry to arrive or leave the theatre. The queues for ticket collection are the longest I have ever witnessed at a theatre. If you need to collect your tickets and are thinking of having a drink before, forget it. Go to the pub across the road instead, and collect your ticket just before curtains up (we didn’t get seated until 7.40pm). And don’t expect to make a quick getaway either with all the fans lining up to tell Tom how much they love him. Traffic management is on the slow side at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
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