Theatre: Thou shalt covet thy best mate's wife

Betrayal Lyttelton, SE1 Kafka's Dick Piccadilly, WC2 Salome Riverside Studios, W6
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The Independent Culture
In the course of his career, Trevor Nunn has staged more texts than subtexts, working with the putters-in - Shakespeare, Dickens, Victor Hugo - rather than the takers-out. Anyone who has heard Nunn give a two-hour press conference would be unlikely, for instance, to think of pairing him up with that master of ellipsis, Harold Pinter. But here they are, at the National: Nunn directing Pinter's Betrayal, which Nunn considers to be one of the top 10 British plays of the century.

In Betrayal, Pinter takes us from the end of an affair back to its beginning. This revival moves the period from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s. One reference that sticks out is the idea that Kilburn is the back of beyond where smart professional types are unlikely to meet anyone they recognise; another is the stolid pre-Eighties restaurant menu.

As the woman in the triangle, Emma moves from her husband to her husband's best friend. Given the choice on offer, we are not surprised that she ends up with neither. In the pub at the end of the relationship (that is, at the beginning of the play), Imogen Stubbs's dark-suited Emma folds in on herself, tucks her blonde hair behind her ear, and parcels out emotionally constipated responses with a considerable sense of hurt. Her early sourness inspires us more than her later niceness, because as a role Emma loses weight the younger she gets. A decade earlier, falling for the drunken entreaties of her husband's best friend, Stubbs has to act pretty dumb.

Probably the youngest veteran Pinter actor around, Douglas Hodge plays her lover, Jerry, with a blokey mix of slumpy ranginess and manipulative comraderie. He has the Pinter repertoire to a T: the unexpected blurt, the false candour and the double-edged grin. His charm switches to indignation as his private code of honour is breached. He plays, in effect, the role Pinter would play. It's OK to sleep with your best friend's wife. It isn't okay for your best friend to know about it without letting you know that he knows about it. Now there's a betrayal.

This nuance highlights the dominant masculinity of the play. The two men joke, spar and fence: social life means meeting up for a game of squash. Anthony Calf plays the cuckolded husband with a willowy crispness that suggests he's the officer to Hodge's NCO. His blow- dried hair flops forward in the public- school manner. He puts Emma down with a nasal cruelty. But we never see what these characters see in each other. There's an absence of sexual chemistry between the lovers. It makes the whole affair banal and overblown.

The designer Es Devlin fills the Lyttelton stage with, well, emptiness. Rachel Whiteread's House inspired the concrete back wall where door, window and fireplace are blocked in. Jerky black-and-white film footage, with images of a bicycle, seagull and rippling water, runs during scene changes. In this desolate setting, the lack of atmosphere in the pub and restaurant made me think that, after some terrible event, these characters were the only people left.

Nunn directs his cast with a grand forcefulness, as if guiding them through he slow movement of a symphony. This pacing and visual spareness creates an unexpected hunger. It's as if Pinter doesn't offer Nunn enough to go on.

Samuel Johnson wrote: "No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more useful". Alan Bennett clearly disagrees. The modern mania for biography, he suggests, is our way of cutting heroes down to our own size. In Bennett's Kafka's Dick, which Peter Hall has happily revived at the Piccadilly, the Czech novelist surfaces 70-odd years after his death, in a suburban home in Leeds. Kafka had no idea he would be famous. During his lifetime, although he published some short stories, he instructed his best friend to burn all his works.

Bennett is very funny at contrasting Kafka, the man who died in 1924, with Kafka, the literary industry that sprang up with the publication of his posthumous works. The Leeds home belongs to an insurance man whose special interest is Kafka (who also worked in an insurance office). The living room shelves are stocked with books by and about Kafka. The shocked novelist is expertly played by John Gordon-Sinclair, who has built a genial career out of nonplussedness, as if each morning he wakes up slightly further back in the plot than the rest of us. Kafka faces the prospect of his worldwide fame with the same trepidation as that with which Gordon- Sinclair faced his first kiss in Gregory's Girl.

Hall's brisk and entertaining production also boasts a trio of able farceurs: Denis Lill gives Sydney, the beige, balding insurance man, just the right lugubriousness; Julia McKenzie, as his buxom, long- suffering wife, winningly appeals to Kafka, and, zaniest of all, a white-haired Eric Sykes bursts in and out with his zimmer-frame as the old father, waiting to be taken to a home. After the interval, the play struggles to move up a gear. But Bennett's intellectual entertainment exploits the Kafkaesque ironies with vintage moments.

As part of his season of "exile" plays, the Gate's director Mick Gordon has gone into exile himself, crossing a couple of squares on the London A-Z, to stage Oscar Wilde's Salome at the Riverside. His conspicuously cramped and detailed recreation of an archaeological dig in Brian Friel's Volunteers was praised by many, including Peter Brook - if not by me. Here, Gordon goes to the other extreme. His spartan Salome takes place in the empty stretches of (what looks like) an aircraft hanger. Only some blue tape demarcates the acting area.

There's some guff in the programme about how the Gate has teamed up with the RNT Studio to experiment with spatial relationships. That probably explains why the first 10 minutes has a self-conscious, overworked artiness to it. Fortunately relationships between spaces quickly give way to relationships between people.

The central attraction, here, is Emily Woof. Her Salome is light-voiced and naturalistic. Even her famous dance starts off like a t'ai chi class. In white jeans, shirt and short T-shirt, Woof`s Salome is very 1990s. Her dreamy dissatisfaction, as she stands, coyly, with one foot turned in on the other, gives her a complex inner poise. She also has the looks.

Greg Hicks's Herod sweeps in with a brisk authority that's halfway between a Dalek and a game-show host. He has blue toe-nails and drinks blue wine. As he offers Woof emeralds, white peacocks and half his kingdom to give up her desire for the prophet's head, it's a contest between the histrionics of stage acting and the withdrawn intensity of screen acting. Woof's muteness wins hands down.

`Betrayal`: Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 452 3000), to February 1999; `Kafka`s Dick': Piccadilly, WC2 (0171 369 1734), to January 1999; `Salome': Riverside Studios, W6 (0181 237 1000), to 13 December.