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.

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump