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Betrayal review: Pinter's love triangle offers fresh pleasures and shorter pauses

Mark Lawson
·2-min read

Harold Pinter came to regret his frequent speech directions “pause” or “silence”, which often caused performers to stop with the lengthy solemnity of wreath-layers at the Cenotaph. So he might approve of this revival of his play getting through the text in 65 minutes, at least 10 below average. Jonathan Church’s staging of gallerista Emma’s attraction triangle with publisher husband Robert and literary agent Jerry seems to be influenced by the squash games to which the men keep challenging each other. After rattling tactical rallies, a character will smash down a big speech.

The play is staged in a Covid-safe Bath auditorium, with two thirds of seats unused but the actors permitted in-your-face kissing and embracing. When Betrayal premiered in 1978, some theatre-goers may have been shocked by the flouting of marriage vows. In 2020, tangible unease meets the breach of social distancing rules. (Don’t phone Professor Whitty – the cast is in a bubble for the run.)

No matter how many times you see Betrayal – and I’m heading for two dozen – there are fresh pleasures. This is due to the freedom Pinter leaves actors (simple lines can be stressed in multiple ways) and the loopy ingenuity of his time scheme. Reversing events from 1977 to 1969 allows us more information than the characters, but the dialogue contains so many lies and mind games that keeping track of who knows, doesn’t know, or is pretending not to know what is as enjoyably mind-stretching as Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet.

Joseph Millson’s louche, potentially brutal Robert treats every conversation with wife or friend as a contest, willing to lose dignity as long as he wins the fight. Edward Bennett’s less than usually stolid Jerry is interestingly more cunning than drunk in the party scene where he sets out to win Emma. Nancy Carroll’s poshly self-confident Emma reveals her as the driver of these lives, coldly deciding when both her marriage and affair end.

Helped by the excision of some youth-confusing lines about the “pips” of coin-operated phone boxes, Pinter’s anti-clockwise work has the feel of a timeless classic.

Betrayal is at Theatre Royal Bath until 31 October.