Betrayal, Comedy Theatre, London
Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse, London
Shrek the Musical, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London
Harold Pinter's ingeniously structured portrait of adultery is riveting to start with but, despite star casting, fails to maintain its backward momentum
Harold Pinter's intimate portrait of infidelity tracks backwards through time, mapping the course of an adulterous affair in reverse – from 1977 to 1968.
Betrayal is ingeniously structured, resembling a series of troubled memories, romantically nostalgic in part, but also raking over the past to detect every latent hint of duplicity, or – more regretfully perhaps – searching for some prior era of innocence.
Ian Rickson's West End revival is riveting at first, as Kristin Scott Thomas's Emma and Douglas Henshall's Jerry – her husband's best friend – meet up for a drink two years after breaking off their love affair. Their initial small talk is comically awkward and taut with conflicting emotions. Her smile has a trace of bitterness, yet a still-smitten vulnerability surfaces too as she says her marriage to Robert is ending. Has Jerry shrugged her off comparatively easily, or is he self-deceived and still hooked?
In Jerry's tête-à-têtes with Ben Miles's Robert, the latter's double-edged comments also tilt between smouldering aggression and repressed anguish as he swigs stiff drinks (because he has, in fact, known for years about Emma's two-timing).
This production – played out in an unfolding set of pale rooms – somehow loses steam, however. Maybe Miles is too lightweight, not quite galled and dangerous enough. And Henshall is curiously static in the final scene when he is surely meant to be more seductively intoxicated – in a bedroom at a party in 1968.
In Michael Grandage's new staging of Luise Miller – Friedrich Schiller's tragedy from 1784 – an incriminating letter falls into the hands of the romantic hero, Ferdinand (Max Bennett). It indicates that his low-born sweetheart, Felicity Jones's Luise, has been unfaithful. Before this calamity, the young aristo had sworn to follow his heart, revolting against the old regime and class system.
But his mind is ultimately poisoned by the wiles of the court, a snakepit of cunning deceivers in embroidered finery. Ferdinand's own father, the Chancellor, has determined on a marriage of political convenience, arranging for his son to wed the Prince's mistress, Lady Milford.
What's enthralling in Grandage's production is that you yourself can't be sure what to believe (which is also the case in Betrayal, incidentally). Here the "baddies" are extremely good liars. Ben Daniels plays the Chancellor not as an obvious authoritarian but with flashes of fond, paternal decency – flicking into a U-turn as he expresses admiration for Frederick's sense of honour. Alex Kingston's Lady Milford is unsettling too, a mercenary with a heart of gold.
Through judicious paring, Mike Poulton's new English adaptation generates more suspenseful uncertainty than the wordier original. On the downside, one trenchant (and surely topical) passage is cut where Milford alludes to the autocratic Prince shooting protesters and razing settlements. Personally, I'd rather the self-conscious echoes of Shakespeare (Othello, Macbeth et al.) had been snipped. Cavils aside, this is the most gripping of all Grandage's Schiller revivals. His cast invests a potentially over-the-top melodrama with driving intensity and wry humour. An austere setting – shadowy brick arches and shuttered windows – is in welcome contrast to Schiller's baroque plot-twists. Ferdinand too becomes interestingly twisted, his idealism turning destructive when he's disastrously misled about Luise.
Speaking of ghastly mistakes, I'd like to apologise for two howling errors in my review last week. Lindsay Posner, not Lindsay Duncan, is the director of Butley and Kyle Soller as Khlestakov, not Callum Dixon as Osip, is Gogol's supposed government inspector at the Young Vic. Sitting through Shrek the Musical was insufficient penance. This mega, West End family show is mildly disappointing schlock, but not completely dreadful. As the lowly ogre who rescues a princess, Nigel Lindsay is lovable enough, but his acting talent is swamped by his slime-green fat-suit. The dialogue can be droll and there's a certain pleasure to seeing Amanda Holden's initially sniffy Princess Fiona bonding with Shrek in a farting duet. Yet this still feels like a sanitised fairytale, for everything is so synthetic.
Most of the sets are oddly drab, in a hotchpotch of styles. The plot – skimpy compared to the film – is padded with innumerable songs. Only the amorous dragon's soul number, "Forever" (voiced by Landi Oshinowo), is storming. Ironically it's the mini-dictator Lord Farquaad who's the main delight. Nigel Harman flounces around his castle on cloak-concealed knees with tiny faux-legs swinging from his hips, like the high-camp love child of Richard III and a ventriloquist's dummy.
'Betrayal' (0844 871 7622) to 20 Aug; 'Luise Miller' (0844 871 7624) to 30 Jul; 'Shrek' (0844 871 8810) to 19 Feb
Kate Bassett sees Paul Hilton cavort with the devil in Marlowe's Dr Faustus
Edward Albee's drawing-room drama, A Delicate Balance, is both satirically droll and imbued with a dark, dreamlike surreality in James McDonald's gripping production at the Almeida, London (to 2 Jul), with Penelope Wilton. James Corden is a blast in One Man, Two Guvnors, the NT's 1960s update of Carlo Goldoni's commedia farce, (to 26 Jul).
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