It seems incredible that Betrayal, Harold Pinter's 1978 backwards investigation of adultery and other self-deceits, has never before been seen in the West End. Thankfully, Sir Peter Hall, who directed its world premiere at the National 25 years ago, has now set the world to rights with this long overdue transfer.
At the heart of Hall's new production, seen earlier this summer at Bath, there's a flicker of genuine warmth that's often missing from 'Pinter plays'. The three central characters - Robert and Emma, a publisher and his art gallery owner wife, and literary agent Jerry, Robert's oldest friend - remain a wholly self-interested lot, but their vulnerabilities are exposed just enough to engender our sympathies.
That's particularly so in the case of Janie Dee, whose captivating Emma deserves more real devotion from the two men in her life and is forced instead to embrace her desolation. Hugo Speer feels slightly miscast as the posh and pompous Robert and, though he impresses with his wine-fuelled bile in the restaurant scene (which also boasts an amusing cameo from James Supervia's waiter), you can't help but think he and Aden Gillett might have shown themselves to better effect had they swapped roles.
John Gunter's set - a lofty jumble of abandoned furniture and children's toys to which the characters recede themselves, like unused props, when not involved in the action - underscores the precarious nature of second-hand love.
NOTE: The following review dates from July 2003 and this production's original run at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Greeted with guarded, even hostile reviews when it opened at the National Theatre in 1978, Betrayal as with The Fight for Barbara (with which this is playing in repertory) draws on the playwright's own experience. In this case, Pinter's affair with the TV presenter and journalist Joan Bakewell and, like another play directed by Peter Hall, Coward's Design for Living, concerns a three-cornered relationship.
Intriguingly, the play begins in the present day - updated here to 2003 - and then spins back through time to seven years earlier though nine scenes to the point of the beginning of the Betrayal. Described by Hall, who directed the premiere production as "a bleak and disturbing piece about infidelities" with "plenty of laughs", the play charts the affair between Jerry (Aden Gillett), a literary agent, and Emma (Janie Dee), who is the wife of Robert (Hugo Speer), Jerry's best friend since undergraduate days.
But in fact the Betrayal goes deeper than this: not only has Emma betrayed her husband, but Jerry too, by not letting him know that Robert found out about the affair four years ago. Robert has betrayed Emma, with a series of affairs, and Jerry by withholding his knowledge of the affair. In addition, Jerry's own wife, whom he has also betrayed, may in turn be having her own affair.
And if all this was not enough, we learn that Jerry and Robert, who both edited poetry magazines at university, have betrayed their youthful ideals. Robert, a successful publisher, confesses he hates the modern novels he publishes, while Jerry, an agent, is growing rich off a best-selling but mediocre writer.
The production, running at around an hour-and-a-half, is directed with the sort of class and pace you would expect from a director of Hall's pedigree. Yet somehow it fails to match the thrills found in Terry Hands' revival last year.
Both Janie Dee and Aden Gillett turn in able performances, but Hugo Speer, as Robert, lacks menace, and, ultimately the production has none of the tension and bite of recent West End revivals of No Man's Land, The Caretaker and The Homecoming.
- Pete Wood