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.