Arts: Theatre: When the clocks go back

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The Independent Culture
BY A slightly rum coincidence, the artistic directors past and present of the National Theatre seem to be adopting each other's babies at the moment. Last week saw Peter Hall's revival of Kafka's Dick, a play which was premiered in 1986 by his successor at the National, Richard Eyre. Now in the Lyttelton, the present incumbent, Trevor Nunn, mounts Harold Pinter's Betrayal which Peter Hall delivered into the world almost precisely 20 years ago in the very same theatre.

This piece is famous for dramatising in an anticlockwise direction the story of a wife's seven-year affair with her husband's best friend, beginning with a meeting long after the liaison is over and ending with the pass at a party that started it all. Nunn's mildly disappointing production elects to shift the action forward by two decades so that the proceedings begin in 1998. Douglas Hodge's excellent Jerry, the literary-agent lover, is now all leather jacket and laddish glottal stops, a manner in sharp contrast to the stiffly controlling public school deportment of Anthony Calf's publisher husband.

The revival's most egregious feature, though, is the set by Es Devlin which looks like a pointed homage to Rachel Whiteread's notorious cast of a house. An eccentric environment for this play? Well, in the desolate scene where the lovers decide to break up, Imogen Stubbs's over-girlish Emma refers to the flat where they have had their afternoon trysts as "an empty home" and Jerry denies that it is even that. By immuring all the play's episodes in a bleak, soulless travesty of a family habitat (using coloured projections for the decor) the production over-insistently requires us to appreciate how the intricate web of betrayals has reduced the world to an ashen lie.

The production flows beautifully, the rewound scenes succeeding each other in a lateral drift across the stage. Subjective recollections of key incidents (the lapping water of a Venetian lagoon, a little girl's happy laughter etc) are flashed up in bafflingly close black-and-white footage on the set. The impression of moving back and forth in time, of Proustian efforts at retrieval and of following a stream to its poisoned source is powerfully conveyed.

Where this Betrayal falls short of excellence, for me, is in the psychological dynamics. The play insinuates that, in a perverse way, the marriage was sustained by the adulterous menage a trois and that the bond between the two men is underlyingly the most intense. There are moments when the production genuinely shocks you with a sense of this (the nakedly passionate kiss Robert bestows on the weeping Emma after a social visit from Jerry), and moments where the true situation is so blatantly obvious, through inflection and gesture, you feel Jerry must be pathetically thick not to realise that Robert knows.

In the episode where he wrests the revelation from his wife, Calf's Robert superbly conducts a calm, lethal torture of her. But the comedy of the great restaurant scene afterwards - with an unwitting Jerry - does not have its full force here. Robert's sudden vituperative outburst against modern literature is too clearly a spasm of displaced anger and hurt whereas it should confuse Jerry and leave him in the ignominious position of darting from bullets he isn't absolutely sure have been fired. An ultimately undercharged Betrayal.

In rep (0171-452 3000). A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

Paul Taylor