All boys together in Pinterworld

A new production of Betrayal reminds us of the playwright’s insights into male relationships

Theatre
Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox in “Betrayal” (©Marc Brenner)

“There’s not much more to say on the subject,” says brittle Robert in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal — an acceptance that the moral complexities of adultery are as old as Zeus. Yet more than 30 years after the first production of the play, based on Pinter’s long affair with Joan Bakewell, the fascination with adultery and its implications is undimmed, even if the world of long publishing lunches and cheap flats in North London as a hideaway for lovers remind us that the 1960s are an eon away in terms of leisured working practices and cheap property.

Betrayal marks the end of an excellent run of Pinter plays at the theatre that now bears his name (formerly the Comedy Theatre) off Piccadilly. It is, in many ways the most haunting of his works because, for all the cleverness of its reversal chronology, it is also the simplest, as everyday joys and miseries are. For five years Jerry (Charlie Cox) and Emma (Zawe Ashton) carry on their affair both cuckolding Robert (Tom Hiddleston) — Pinter’s great insight is that the betrayal of friendship is every bit as devastating as the sexual deceit.

In the cruel geometry of this story of erudite, high-status Londoners with wandering eyes and hands, someone is always the wallflower. Jamie Lloyd’s production makes the most of the emotional choreography. Hiddleston often haunts the back of the stage, a handsome ghost with slicked-back hair and angular gestures of discomfort, implying that he has been knowledgeable or complicit from the start. The triangles of love, affection and competition between the prime participants revolve, including and excluding one or other character as we move backwards, through the unravelling of the relationships and beginning when the affair is already over and passion has given way to forced politeness and an awkward insecurity about where to land a kiss of greeting.

How dated are the attitudes? Pinter’s women are strange creatures: damaged, unattainable or what we might now call “objectified”. Emma in this saga is most often the prize of a tussle between the two men. There’s a particularly dated passage in which the conversation between the two men turns to “bashing her up a bit” — a casual approach to domestic violence that was wincing at the time and now feels even more off-key.

Pinter’s great forcefulness as a writer is about relations between men, and even when sex is at the heart of the action women can feel more like collateral — drivers of drama that is more focused on acute understanding of male rivalries and attraction. Zawe Ashton’s Emma is ultimately thwarted in her hopes of finding a lasting happiness with either of the two men.

The famous lunch scene, in which Robert delivers cheery appreciation of his friendship with Jerry in the full knowledge that he has been betrayed, makes the most of Hiddleston’s capacity for playing smooth charm, concealing unease and anger, in the vein of his outing as Jonathan Pine in the BBC’s glitzy The Night Manager. Cox makes his Jerry a breezy, finger-flicking sensualist, who has broken rules and taken advantage for so long that he can no longer tell the difference between truth and dishonesty.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is a spare absence of period clutter — changing hues of pastel screens and couple of chairs. It looks a bit like Ivo van Hove’s determined attempts to strip the accumulated expectations of period settings out of classic works.

Betrayal’s last outing in the same theatre featured Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ian Rickson, with a far greater sense of period ambience (and a far jazzier tablecloth, brought back from Venice by Emma). That is a symbol of the way domesticity creeps into relationships which start out as transgressive — an aspect of the story which we forfeit here. This lot seem far too cool to have much interest in tableware.

But paring the play back to its bones also reminds us of the interconnected intimacy of the group and the way that we use or abuse information about others more cruelly when we ourselves feel threatened or thwarted.

Talking of deconstructing myths, The Shed, New York’s reassuringly expensive new arts space (funded in part by the ex-mayor,  Michael Bloomberg) started its theatrical offer last month with an engaging oddity of a work entitled Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a new play by the Canadian poet and adaptor of classics Anne Carson linking the fates of the ship-launching enchantress of the ancient world and the tragic diva Marilyn Monroe.

Both roles are played — or “inhabited” as the latest jargon of theatre-speak would have it — by Ben Whishaw, the mercurial actor who shone as the dippy, damaged Norman Scott in A Very British Scandal on our screens. His/her prim secretary is “inhabited” by the grande dame American soprano, Renée Fleming, whose part is mainly sung while Whishaw’s is spoken.

I watched the two in rehearsal while interviewing Fleming, and there’s no denying that this is the kind of new work in a “black box” space that crosses the old boundaries of operatic performance and stage drama. The silos of genre are being broken down, appealing to new audiences who might be sniffy about a night at the opera but appreciate the chance to hear one of the worlds great voices in a more avant-garde work.

Launch productions are hard to get right. This one was still being rehearsed with the builders in, a week before first night. It’s somehow reassuring to the rest of us that even a billionaire’s deep pockets cant get the workmen to finish on time.

The piece itself is a dream-like construction, with Whishaw at ease in his gender-bending role and Fleming clearly enjoying a genre-bending work of word and song. Carson is an assured reinterpreter of the classical world (she translated Antigone for the Barbican production starring Juliette Binoche not long ago).

But anything involving the Marilyn Monroe story runs the risk of being a re-run of too-familiar tropes. While Whishaw plays his transitions with an unembarrassed flair and Fleming’s voice soars like a siren throughout the production, the result is less than the sum of its dramatic parts. As Bloomberg put it on reading a mixed bag of first reviews, “It’s not for everyone.”

I can’t quite see the asset managers flocking to it for a corporate night out, but for those curious about what Ben Whishaw looks like in a Marilyn-memorial shower- cap and dressing-gown, it’s just the whimsical ticket.