When Peter Hall directed Harold Pinter’s 1978 Betrayal, charting adultery among London’s literati, he noted that the playwright is “talking about something else… If you start with self-betrayal, it gradually infects everything, like a dreadful, destructive virus”. Thus a dated modern classic gains unexpected currency in Jonathan Church’s period-precise, occasionally piercing revival, which joyously opens the Theatre Royal, Bath after a near-deathly dramatic pause. With a cast of four (currently living in a bubble, so merrily exchanging droplets), it is service as nearly-normal.
Famously unravelling anticlockwise, though staged by Church on a clockwise revolve, the play begins with Emma and Jerry, her husband’s best friend, raking through the embers of their affair over a mug of beer and spools back to its initial spark when, following Jerry’s drunken lunge, Nancy Carroll’s cool yet slinky Emma extends her arm towards him. Pinter ingeniously holds the audience (masked, socially distanced, safe) in the uneasy position of knowing more than his characters about who is betraying and deceiving whom.
The effect can be devastating, never more so than when Joseph Millson’s Robert (spookily resembling a bullish young Pinter) sees a letter Jerry has secretly sent to Emma. She lies snug and smug in bed reading a novel recommended by her lover of, she confesses, five years. Shattered, Robert sniffs back tears, then adopts the wolfish witty mask that makes him so compelling. “I’ve always liked Jerry,” he says. “To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.”
Pinter’s love triangle seems more than usually uneven. Millson’s Robert is coiled and charismatic. Only his friendship with Edward Bennett’s Jerry, much discussed but never felt, explains Emma’s attraction to Jerry, last to know what is going on, first to misremember. An alluring Carroll plays Emma as a Sloaney, smoochy domestic goddess, as sexy in a pinny as a slip, who adores being adored. And while the men sweat and suffer, she remains silkily symptom-free.