Review: Betrayal (Theatre Royal Bath)

Pinter’s play reopens the Bath venue for a new season with socially distanced audiences

© Nobby Clark

A lot has happened to alter our understanding of Harold Pinter's Betrayal since it was first premiered in 1978, in both general and specific terms. Our view of women and women's sense of themselves and their rights have changed in the intervening years. And our particular view of a play inspired by his seven-year, secret affair with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, has been shifted by the fact that three years ago Bakewell wrote her own riposte.

In Keeping In Touch, heard on Radio 4 in 2017, Bakewell explored her own motivations for the events depicted – and these seem to inform this new production of Pinter's play, intelligently directed by Jonathan Church, which wonderfully reopens Bath's Theatre Royal for public entertainments.

Certainly Nancy Carroll's transfixing performance as Emma, the woman having a relationship with her husband Robert's best friend Jerry, seems to embody Bakewell's sense that she sought out passion with Pinter as much because he offered an alternative way of seeing herself, and trying to find a more happy home. This is a very domestic drama, characterised by stews cooked and tablecloths bought for a North London love nest rather than exotic liaisons. Emma is seduced by a promise of a different world and suddenly her longing seems the heart of things, where sometimes she can seem peripheral to the exploration of male bonding that the play also offers.

It is of course a sign of the resilience and greatness of the piece that it opens itself up to different interpretations, with its web of repeated betrayals. Seeing it afresh (not so long after Jamie Lloyd's stripped-back, timeless production with Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton), I was struck again by the strength of its structure, unfolding backwards from the point two years after the affair has ended, to the moment of its rapturous start. The deadly potency of its observation of the corrosive effect of repeated deception is held in a cradle of acutely drawn social scenes.

Church and his designer Alex Eales have kept the '70s period setting which means that the revolving set – a symphony of browns – is rather ugly, but effective at conjuring the everyday settings where this arc of emotion plays out; Joshua Carr's lighting sensitively evokes the place (golden Venice, grimy north London) as well as the mood.

As Robert, Joseph Millson plays up the character's almost vulpine tendencies. There's a terrible line towards the beginning where he admits that he has hit Emma, not because he discovered her infidelity but to fulfil "the old itch". That phrase lingers in the memory as the timeline unfolds; there's a suggestion of ongoing misery, concealed beneath a smooth surface. His friendship with Edward Bennett's Jerry seems a mystery; I don't feel two such mismatched men could ever have liked each other. But Bennett is good at suggesting Jerry's weak desire to have it all and his disappointment when that possibility is snatched away.

As for Carroll she finds a suppressed sadness and uncertainty in Emma that is infinitely touching. When Jerry first chats her up, you see her surprise and pleasure at being told she is beautiful; when Robert discovers the affair in the great central scene set in Venice, she seems to stop breathing as she watches him, carefully judging what to do next. She seems to cling to shreds of happiness and hide everything else away under enforced composure.

It's a fascinating production and the Theatre Royal, Bath have done it proud. Their Covid-secure measures manage to make you feel very safe while not making the theatre feel too empty. Their Welcome Back season – with Copenhagen and Oleanna still to come – is a proper cause for celebration.