Pinter's extra-marital inspiration

Gina Allum on "Betrayal".

Pinter is known to have based his play Betrayal on a seven-year affair with Joan Bakewell, wife of his best friend Michael. There had been rumours, at the time of its publication in 1978, that it concerned the five-year affair (prior to his divorce) with Lady Antonia Fraser.

Plenty of extra-maritals for the playwright to draw upon, then. And in one sense Betrayal does have a self-justificatory air - the affair is as inevitable as it is arbitrary. It just is. Though perhaps this is to downgrade the playwright's imaginative sympathies, as interestingly, Pinter gives the cuckolded husband the meatiest role, a part that he himself was to play on the radio.

In this production at the Comedy Theatre, Ben Miles plays husband Robert, the "prose-hating publisher" and at times he could pass for Pinter himself: bunched, burly, belligerent (and with most impressive sideburns). A pinched and porcelain Kristin Scott Thomas is his faithless wife Emma, and Douglas Henshall makes up the trio as the affable, corduroy-clad best friend.

The play's chronology is reversed, so that we start some two years after the end of the affair. Pinter plays a couple of tracks, as it were, and then rewinds to another point on the playlist. Foreknowledge makes us aware of the excruciating details of treachery. All three betray each other and themselves, and we bear witness to their intricate dishonesty: "I think I thought you knew but you didn't", Robert equivocates blandly at one point.

Pinter's spare and muscular dialogue masks matters of heartbreaking import with the seemingly trivial and insignificant: Robert's rant on the truculence of gondoliers, the "Venetian je m'en foutisme" disguises an impassioned state of the (marital) union address. Games of squash become weightily symbolic of the (perhaps homoerotic) vigour and intimacy of the men's friendship.

There's a certain toughness, a machismo about Pinter that survives his transition to a domestic setting in Betrayal. The protagonists have some perfunctory offspring, apparently, but these children never appear and are only sketchily realised. And third-party-Jerry's wife is similarly absent. Cut off from such ties that bind, the mess and complication of claims on one's life, and any hint of collateral damage, the ménage appears indulgent, narcissistic.

And it's hard to understand what they all saw in each other. Pinter's insistence on the patterning rather than the particular and the banal inevitability of it all quite skirts any attempt at causality. Eros is absent. In this production, at least, no-one appears particularly lovable.

The spinning back and forward through time and location necessitates multiple scene changes and whilst designer Jeremy Herbert gets the furniture removals done efficiently enough (behind a flimsy bit of gauze), we are left with a bit of a limbo between scenes, which the actors do their best to fill with meaningful gazing, or purposeful strides offstage. Herbert leaves the bed - the ultimate symbol of bad faith - on sight for the duration.

The design decisions have a creeping, melancholy impact on the tone of the play: the tawdry décor of the lovers' Kilburn shag pad is all but reprised in the married couple's spare room for the final scene of the play, in which wife and best friend's first tryst takes place. The affair is tired before it has even begun, scotched and quashed by this joyless visual backdrop.

The performance I saw was a preview, although I'm not sure this quite excused the disruptive sounds of scene-shifting offstage, or the line-muddling of the otherwise excellent Henshall. Despite its conciseness (coming in at only ninety minutes) it seemed to lack a certain vivacity at key moments. But maybe a play that appears to owe more to game theory than the welter of human impulses is bound to leave spectators frozen out.

The final moment almost rescued the entire enterprise, as Henshall takes hold of Scott Thomas's arm and for a few seconds she is balanced, a fulcrum of possibilities: all time eternally present, and all time unredeemable.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times