Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre

Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton in Betrayal picture by Marc Brenner

Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton in Betrayal picture by Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton give sensational performances in a bold stylish production of Pinter’s unflinching examination of an extramarital affair - told in reverse chronology

Jamie Lloyd closes his hit Pinter at the Pinter season with a starry production of the great man’s 1978 play, inspired by his extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell.

It’s a bold, stylish take, featuring a stark Soutra Gilmour set resembling an art gallery, expressive lighting by Jon Clark, and an evocative sound design from Ben and Max Ringham: records skipping as a clock ticks insistently.

It emphasises the play’s daring – not just its reverse chronology structure, but the unflinching examination of passion and frailty.

The three actors are always on stage so that two-hander scenes are haunted by the absent party, casting literal shadows, and a clever use of the stage revolve creates vivid tableaux.

Occasionally, this artful framing makes it trickier to follow Pinter’s meticulous series of revelations and their emotional effect, as the affair between gallery owner Emma and literary agent Jerry runs backward from chilly aftermath to giddy beginning, impacting on the friendship between Jerry and Emma’s husband, publisher Robert.

It also elides the distinction between surface English politeness and underlying devastation.

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But it does draw out sensational performances. Zawe Ashton brings a slippery duplicity to Emma, and has smouldering chemistry with Charlie Cox, who captures the seemingly nice Jerry’s hypocrisy: he betrays others, but is outraged when they do the same. His hurt pride demonstrates that it’s knowledge, not sex, which holds true power here.

But the standout turn is Tom Hiddleston, mesmerising as Robert.

Initially cool and intimidating, he vents his rage during a tense lunch, stabbing his melon and baring his teeth in a tiger-ish smile. He also has the great actor’s gift of stillness; when he learns of the affair, he stays contained, but tears gradually pool in his eyes, vulnerability springing forth unwillingly.

It’s extraordinary theatre.