First Night: Betrayal, Comedy Theatre, London

Scott Thomas is a picture of exquisite pain in Pinter revival

Paul Taylor
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:26

Kristin Scott Thomas has graced the London stage on three previous occasions – each time to indelible effect. She was a dazzling enigma as the heroine who may or may not have radically mislaid her identity in Pirandello's trenchant teaser, As You Desire Me. She veered superbly between grande dame loftiness and low-down, brilliantly timed spite as Arkadina in The Seagull. Ian Rickson directed the latter, which was also a hit on Broadway.

Scott Thomas returns to the West End now in Rickson's excellent revival of Pinter's Betrayal, playing Emma, the woman caught between her husband Robert, a publisher, and her lover, Jerry, a literary agent and Robert's best friend. An actress who initially made her name for glacial hauteur and the uncanniness of her beauty, she is heart-breaking here in a performance of exquisitely nuanced emotional vulnerability and pain.

This is the best account that I have seen of Pinter's 1978 play, which charts the course of the adulterous seven-year affair in reverse chronology, beginning in 1977, two years after it has ended, and then rewinding to the pass at a party that initiated it. Everything is seen in the shadow of disillusion and treachery foretold and as it flows backwards, to the pensive piano broodings of Stephen Warbecks' moody bridging music, this production imparts a powerful sense of how each episode is pregnant with the sadness and the cynicism that we have already witnessed being brought to birth.

The flat in Kilburn that Emma hoped to make into an alternative home dominates Jeremy Herbert's fine design with its bleak anonymity. The other settings are subordinated to it, revealed on mini-revolves. It pervades the proceedings with failure. In one of many eloquent directorial touches, Emma is seen sitting, in her mind's eye on the long-abandoned bed, as though still filled with the memory of it, before rising to cross to the first scene of the awkward pub reunion.

What this revival establishes with matchless force is the controlling dominance of the husband Robert, played with a toying sadism by the excellent Ben Miles, whose leather jacket, dark sideburns and air of the mannered, intellectual bruiser keep putting you in mind of Pinter himself. It's one of the many interlocking acts of betrayal that when Robert finds out about the affair, he keeps his best friend and cuckolder ignorant of the fact. He prefers to preserve a manipulative hold.

In the Venice hotel room, he alternately tears the bedspread off the bed in anger and taps his wife familiarly under the chin. In a London restaurant, he gives an hilariously violent diatribe against modern literature before the bemused Jerry (a very fine Douglas Henshall). The male pair seem to be magnetised in an intimate bully-masochist liaison, perversely sustained by the affair. Never has it been clearer that Emma gets the raw deal than here where Scott Thomas radiates a poignant adoration of Jerry. She adopts the mock-jauntiness of the insecure as she puts out feelers to see if he will change his life for her, only to subside into desolation when he fails her. A haunting performance in a terrific revival.

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