If betrayal by those we love the most is the most piercing of pains, then the cast of this revival of Harold Pinter’s drama looks supremely capable of inflicting it: They’re all angles. There’s Zawe Ashton, tall, willowy, with a fine-boned fragility; Charlie Cox, chin jutting, gaze darting; and of course Tom Hiddleston, the big box-office draw, taut and lean, his knees and elbows like knifepoints. Rounding off the Jamie Lloyd Company’s acclaimed residency, Pinter at the Pinter, this is a fine production of the playwright’s penetrating depiction of an extra-marital affair in reverse.
It’s a clean kill – swift, savage and elegant, with an intriguing dimension of identity confusion. How well do we really know even the people with whom we’re most intimate? Are we quite the same person in each of our different relationships? How much is our character moulded or warped by the connections we make and the roles – wife, husband, mother, father, friend, lover – we play? Sometimes wryly funny, always bleak and bruising, the staging is beautifully acted and delicately directed by Jamie Lloyd. And if the play, first performed in 1978, is in some respects conspicuously showing its age, in the hands of this team it still draws blood – and tears.
The plot mechanics hinge on that hoariest of literary devices, the revealing letter – which in itself feels quaint in this age of email and text, nowadays a much more reliable and easily concealed means of managing and maintaining an affair. Pinter’s dialogue, too, has a carefully articulate, almost airless quality, for all its repressed passions. It’s the discourse of the literati, tasteful, ultra-civilised, stuffed with references to novels and poetry, smart London lunches, elegant trips abroad. No one swears. No one loses control. Designer Soutra Gilmour costumes Ashton in a silk blouse and flared jeans that could belong in the drama’s 70s fashion era or, just as comfortably, in our own. The men, on the other hand, wear tight, sharp-cut suits that look thoroughly modern. So this is not quite a period piece, yet not quite contemporary either. Gilmour sets it against a mottled pink, white and grey wall, which looks like flaking plaster and is at the same time vaguely reminiscent of cherry blossom. It suggests the crumbling beauty of Venice, where the infidelity is exposed; and of decaying romance.
We begin in a London bar, where Ashton’s Emma meets Cox’s Jerry. She runs an art gallery. He’s a literary agent. He was also her publisher husband Robert’s best friend – and her former lover. Their chat is bright, barbed, ultra-civilised. Ashton’s smile is a touch too bright; Cox seems to sadistically relish her discomfort. Hiddleston, as Robert, waits and watches on the sidelines – and throughout the 90-minute performance, all three characters remain onstage, witnesses to the slow, insidious destruction of their own happiness. As we spool back through the years to the moment, at a party, where the deception began, we see all the small stabs and suspicions, the intricate power play, the teasing out of information that is hungered for and dreaded.
Hiddleston is ferociously focused with an immensely expressive face, his eyebrows often signalling rage or agony that his tongue refuses to speak. Over a meal in a restaurant with Jerry, he attacks his food with almost homicidal vigour and behaves viciously towards a blameless waiter. In a later scene, Emma and Robert’s small daughter appears and curls up on Hiddleston’s lap. While his wife and friend are together, Robert’s chair glides past on a revolve as he buries his face in the girl’s hair for comfort. It brings home sharply the true cost of the affair – the risking of two families, the wounding of children as well as spouses.
There is cruelty, and there is suffering. Eyes glitter and well up, and plead. And there are moments when the trio is agonisingly close to one another, across time and space, the betrayal occurring within breath-on-skin proximity. It’s all as skilful as surgery – but, crucially, without the anaesthetic.