Review - Betrayal starring Tom Hiddleston at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton in Betrayal
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Wednesday, 13 March, 2019
Review by: 

Director Jamie Lloyd has just finished a six-month season featuring seven rotating bills of all Harold Pinter's short plays, which proved to be a thrilling and frequently alarming journey into some of the playwright's lesser-known works. Now, Lloyd follows it with a blisteringly brilliant production of one of Pinter's best-known (but still brief) and most powerful and personal plays, Betrayal, originally premiered at the National in 1978.

I missed that first production as I was only 15 at the time and not living in London yet, but I've seen at least four West End revivals since and two in New York, with actors that have variously included Bill Nighy, Toby Stephens, Sam West, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. But I can confidently say Lloyd's is the most acute, spellbinding, and at times most surprising, I've ever seen.

It fields its own impressive trilogy of star names, all of whom have strong stage pedigrees that each include previous appearances at the Donmar Warehouse and, in the case of Charlie Cox, a prior credit starring in a Pinter double bill of The Lover and The Collection, also directed by Lloyd, at this same address a decade ago. But if this fine younger actor has gone on to American TV fame in Daredevil, the real Hollywood star power comes in the form of Tom Hiddleston, now most famous for his recurring role as Loki in the Marvel franchise of Thor and The Avengers, while rising film and TV actor Zawe Ashton completes the billing.  

They respectively play two best friends - a publisher (Hiddleston) and an agent (Cox) - and the wife of the publisher (Ashton) whom the agent has a long-established affair with (it lasts some seven years). To reveal this isn't a spoiler - as Pinter's play spools backwards from the end of the affair to somewhere near its beginning, we find this out in the opening minutes of the play. But this marital betrayal isn't the only betrayal in the play; there's also another in the friendship between the two men - and secrets held onto by each of the parties.  

The simmering - or variously spiralling - tensions multiply throughout the play, as we come to know more about what is known and unknown by each character.  

But more than any other production I've ever seen, it strips the play to its bare bones, both physically and emotionally: it is stylishly staged with minimal sets and props (four bottles stage left, three movable walls, and two chairs) that are placed on a revolve and reconfigure the space constantly.

So, too, are the emotions (or sometimes lack of them) among the characters, who project an intoxicating combination of sexuality, hurt and damage. As Hiddleston's publisher first discovers his wife's affair, for instance, he is positioned against a wall that's right at the front of the stage, and his tears are visible.

Also for the first time in my experience, Robert and Emma's child (alluded to in the script) makes a physical appearance, and suddenly the dramatic stakes and emotions are even higher.

This is a magnificent, searing account of Pinter's most autobiographically charged play (inspired by an affair he had himself when he was already married), and it brings Lloyd's classy season of Pinter at the Pinter to an end with a fine flourish.

Betrayal is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 1st June.

Betrayal tickets are available now.

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

 

"While Tom Hiddleston is the big draw and gives a fine performance, what is striking is the spartan purity of Jamie Lloyd’s production. Of the many versions of the play I’ve seen over the past 40 years this one goes furthest in stripping the action of circumstantial detail."
Michael Billington, The Guardian, ★★★★☆

"[Jamie Lloyd's [production] confirms Betrayal as a modern masterpiece, built to last, but reassures us that Hiddleston has got the theatrical acting chops to head up there among the greats."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph, ★★★★☆

"There’s an astonishing, long-held moment when Hiddleston looks at Ashton – his brow somehow a repository for years of bruised tenderness. In a silence, his eyes fill with tears, and it barely feels like acting at all. In moments such as this, Betrayal does illuminate the heart."
Holly Williams, iNews, ★★★★☆

"This sparse, elegant production closes Lloyd’s revelatory and handsomely cast season of Pinter’s shorter pieces in the theatre that bears the playwright’s name... it’s a surprising and unsparing interpretation, in which every detail counts."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard, ★★★★☆

"All three actors are at ease with the rhythms of Pinter’s language and at filling the spaces between their words with meaning, be it loss, longing or recrimination. There’s an ease and chemistry between them as a company."
Natasha Tripney, The Stage, ★★★★☆

"Betrayal is notionally Pinter’s most accessible play, and is staged frequently, often with celebrity casts and safe productions. But I’ve never seen a production before that has made such sense of it for me, and has been so daring in the staging."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out, ★★★★★

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