Betrayal, Duchess Theatre, London

Nasty from the start. And then it gets worse
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The Independent Culture

"We met at nine."

"We met at eight."

"I was on time."

"No, you were late."

"Ah yes! I remember it well."

Imagine that remembrance of things past from Gigi but 11 times more lethal and you're still not even close to the electrifying power of Pinter's towering masterpiece Betrayal. Within seconds we know we're on the scent of something. A man and a woman gaze at each other and toast one another silently. Out of thin air and via a handful of lines of seemingly innocuous dialogue - "How are you?" "I'm fine" - Pinter has whipped up the strung-out atmosphere of a psychological thriller... and from there on in he never lets go.

Most plays are built around a bomb, the carefully planted idea which then explodes at the crucial plot point to devastating dramatic effect. What will happen when Othello finds out about Iago's trickery? When will the smouldering sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire burst into flame? The chief reason why Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal is so astounding is that he openly plants the bomb in scene one - revealing the past secret affair between Emma and her husband Robert's best friend Jerry - and then explodes it not once but seven times, once in each of the subsequent scenes.

Famously, instead of just detailing the pleasures and perils of infidelity - an idea spinning off from his own illicit relationship with the equally married Joan Bakewell - Pinter ups the stakes, beginning the action two years after the end of the affair, he runs the plot backwards but gives it engrossing forward momentum by locking the audience into the relationships in an almost unique way.

Betrayal is nothing less than the most theatrically sophisticated version of the playground taunt, "I know something you don't know." As each scene further unravels the secrets and lies of the triangular affair by cutting backwards through time, we're constantly ahead of the game. Knowing more than the characters do gives everything genuinely Hitchcockian suspense. Unlike Emma, we know that Robert has discovered the affair, so when we see her lying on a bed lying to him, the tension rockets exactly as in the terrifying moment in Rear Window when we clock Grace Kelly searching for evidence in the apartment of murderous Raymond Burr unaware that he is about to find her.

You don't have to take my word for its greatness. Directors cannot get enough of it. David Leveaux recently directed it on Broadway with Juliette Binoche having helmed the play at the Almeida in 1991. And now Peter Hall is returning to it 25 years on from his world premiere production at the National Theatre. The result is like a conductor returning to a favourite piece. From the pacing and placing of every line it's clear he understands every moment and every beat of this play. So, does lightning striking twice?

For starters, he has tied one hand behind his back by agreeing to John Gunter's set which resorts to one of the irritating clichés of late 20th-century theatre: ie setting the action (unhelpfully) within concentric gold picture frames. In the centre is an overly-artful pyramid of furniture, toys and significant street-signs which alludes to times past but clutters the stage image.

"What are you trying to say by saying that?" asks Emma at one point, a perfect encapsulation of the peerless way Pinter exposes the emotional undertow of every single line. Penelope Wilton, the original Emma, is one of those very rare actors who can simultaneously play pain and pleasure and make you see the thoughts underpinning both. This cast is alive to the calibrations of the text but too often their words fly up while their hidden thoughts remain below.

Janie Dee quells her usual vivacity and is impressively composed, but that stillness feels self-conscious which stifles Emma's tragic side. Aden Gillett's Jerry has suppressed power but, like Dee, he too comes across as considered when he should be a loose cannon. Hugo Speer comes off best, investing Robert, the cuckolded husband, with quiet fury. But then like Art (but around 800 times better written) Betrayal is really all about male bonhomie, the joking that covers the jockeying for position. Hall's revival lacks danger and its narrow emotional range means it doesn't pierce your heart - but every wannabe playwright and anyone hungry for writing of this truly rare calibre should grab a ticket.

'Betrayal': Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (020 7494 5075) to 31 January

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