Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal received a fresh West End revival at the Donmar Warehouse last night (5 June 2007, previews from 31 May), in a strongly received production directed by Roger Michell, designed by William Dudley and starring Samuel West, Dervla Kirwan and Toby Stephens (See Today's 1st Night Photos).
Famously played backwards in time, Betrayal traces a seven-year affair - between art gallery owner Emma (Kirwan) and literary agent Jerry (Stephens), the best friend of her publisher husband Robert (West) - from its poignant end to its first illicit kiss.
The semi-autobiographical drama was last seen in the West End in a 2003 production directed by Peter Hall, who also helmed the 1978 premiere at the National, where Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon and Daniel Massey starred. Michell also directed Pinter’s Old Times at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago. Betrayal continues its limited season at the venue until 21 July 2007.
Widely considered the most accessible of the Nobel Prize-winning Pinter’s plays, Betrayal has nevertheless historically had its detractors amongst the critics. However, those who filed overnight after last night’s offering were completely won over by Michel’s “finely nuanced” production, which caused one to completely retract his original 1978 rubbishing of the play and another to declare it “a masterly production of a masterpiece … I can’t recommend it too highly”. There was strong praise all round for the actors, too, with critics especially warm towards Samuel West for his “superbly observed” performance as the betrayed husband Robert.
Michael Coveney for Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “I may be wrong, but I don’t think Peter Hall’s original production at the National flagged up the dates of each scene. Roger Michell’s new version certainly does, reminding us that although the play starts two years after the affair ended and reels backwards to the fateful encounter at a party in 1968, it also shuffles forwards a couple of times, giving an elasticity to the action and a challenge to your involvement, which is brilliantly engaged by Pinter’s urgently deft writing ... Toby Stephens as Jerry and Samuel West as Robert are exactly the right sort of young forty-ish age, and Dervla Kirwan, the bewitching Irish actress from True Kiss Dare and Ballykissangel on television, has the ideal slow and steady serenity that absorbs the emotional punches while irradiating both pain and pleasure at their memory.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Another Betrayal? It's only four years since Peter Hall's production of Pinter's time-reversing play about the labyrinthine nature of deceit. Roger Michell's revival is more than justified by its mix of physical fluidity, emotional precision, and accumulating sense of pain ... Superbly played by Samuel West, Robert initially seems a cold, calculating bastard viewing the fluctuations of adultery with sublime indifference … This in no way diminishes the other performances. Dervla Kirwan as Emma has the capacity to act thought … Toby Stephens invests the adulterous Jerry with a paradoxical innocence … The virtue of Michell's production is it leaves no crevice unexplored; and it is much aided by William Dudley's design which, with its swirling white curtains, beautifully counterpoints the formal symmetry of Pinter's exquisitely crafted play. Having rubbished it back in 1978, I am happier than ever to eat my words.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “Drama that unfolds backwards is usually a pang-inducing progression from experience to relative innocence, as when in Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along, the compromised middle-aged characters shed their layers of cynicism and re-emerge as their youthful idealistic selves. Betrayal is different. It's as though we are tracing a stream to its poisoned source … This comes over very clearly in Roger Michell's excellent, finely nuanced revival at the Donmar. A play whose structure puts the audience in the position of knowing the outcome could feel clinical and detached. But the sadness hits you as each moment incubates future pain … Emma's development is superbly charted in reverse by Dervla Kirwan. At the end of the relationship, she's angrily indignant and self-possessed … West brilliantly delivers Robert's lethally barbed banter but also gives you, in bouts of displaced fury, glimpses of a man crying out for help. Toby Stephens, who plays the weaker Jerry, brings out all the absurdity of the fact that he feels principally betrayed by Robert ... The shower-like curtains are an ugly mistake.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “I have never seen the play better performed than it is here in a sparely designed, beautifully acted production by Roger Michell that uncovers every irony, every nuance of feeling and shaft of bitter humour in Pinter’s tremendous script. Toby Stephens plays Jerry with puppyish charm but also brings a depth of pain and vulnerability one rarely encounters in Pinter … Dervla Kirwan combines a throaty sexiness and natural warmth with moments when she seems to retreat into herself, and withhold herself from both the men in her life, neither of whom are capable of possessing her completely … Best of all, perhaps, is Samuel West, who brings a scary chill to the stage as the cuckolded Robert, rejoicing in the power of knowledge even as he suffers the humiliation of betrayal … This is a masterly production of a masterpiece and I can’t recommend it too highly.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “In this least Pinteresque and most straightforward of all his plays, one which lacks the familiar whiff of menace or the shift between dream and realism, the lovers who lie together, lie to each other. It is the Anglo-Saxon way until reticence becomes unbearable ... In Michell's production, with William Dudley's white muslin drapes swirling artily around the stage, Pinter's flash-backing procedures allow something more than secret sexual attachment to loom large... Despite the edgy introversion of Betrayal's characters and their irritating excess of social, very small talk, Michell's production rivets the attention. Genuine emotion, that dreaded, un-Anglo Saxon attendant at any feast of confession and plain-speaking, memorably breaks out. West's superbly observed Robert, in old-fashioned clothes and invested with stiff, prim formality, as if a corset had been placed round a breaking heart, finally flares up while lunching with Jerry and rages over his publishing career… How thrilling to watch Pinter's characters at last shedding their inhibitions and succumbing to spiritual striptease.”
- by Jake Brunger