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Theater review: 'Betrayal' at the Comedy Theatre in London

July 4, 2011 |  4:22 pm

Betrayal 2 

It's not easy to mistake a British actress for a French one, but Kristin Scott Thomas, who was born in England yet calls France home, has that certain je ne sais quoi. Her beauty is rife with implication. She has that Gallic ability to seduce or scorn without opening her mouth. Shakespearean phrases no doubt fall trippingly from her tongue, but an eloquent silence is her chief asset.

How marvelous to see her wield this expressive reticence in the revival of Harold Pinter's “Betrayal” at the Comedy Theatre in London's West End. Pinter was a playwright who relished his opaque mystery as much as his articulate Englishness, and both come naturally to Scott Thomas.

As befits a work about marital infidelity, the play is largely a three-character affair — an isosceles triangle, if you will, with equally significant male roles intersecting with Emma, played by Scott Thomas with just the right mix of ice and smolder.

Betrayal 2bThe production, directed by Ian Rickson (whose Broadway credits include “Jerusalem” and “The Seagull” with Scott Thomas), takes one major risk, casting the role of Jerry, the man who had a seven-year affair with Emma, with Douglas Henshall, a Scottish actor with a thick brogue and a soft demeanor. His eyes and voice plead with an ardency that is quite a departure from the more watchful passion of Jeremy Irons, who starred in the 1983 film version. This transparent vulnerability takes getting used to — especially for an American theatergoer who might have difficulty culturally placing Henshall's Jerry — but in the end Pinter's drama is luminously X-rayed.

The assured Ben Miles offers a more traditional Oxbridge portrait of Robert, Emma's publisher husband who understands the advantage of a good poker face. He's needed to have one. Jerry, his best friend, was sleeping with Emma on the sly. True to his willfully unflappable temperament, Robert revealed nothing, understanding that the weakest thing a man in his position could do is show the slightest hint of emotion.

The play, which begins in 1977 after the affair between Emma and Jerry has ended and concludes in 1968 just as it's about to get started, is really about the shell game of knowledge that is at the heart of adultery. Pinter, as is his wont, leaves his characters on such slippery ground that it's not easy to figure out who's doing the betraying and who's being betrayed. Deception is always a two-way street. “Betrayal” is as much a puzzle as a poem of faithlessness.

In one of the liveliest scenes, Robert and Jerry meet for their usual lunch at an Italian restaurant not long after Robert has found out about the affair. Their conversation is tense, but the cause of the tension remains buried. Miles suggests Robert's fury without every letting it become explicit. Henshall lets us see the way Jerry has to continually deflect his guilt and fear. A waiter, played by John Guerrasio, provides comic relief simply by trying to keep up with the men's barking orders for food and wine.

Rickson's fluid staging, with one scene still lingering disquietly in the air as spare pieces of furniture are repositioned for the next, makes theatrical sense of the play's reverse chronology. The movement is from cynicism to innocence (in the sense of hopefulness, not purity). Experience has cultivated in this trio an inveterate stealth, which makes the moments before romance and friendship have curdled so heartbreaking to encounter in the play's final stretch.

“Betrayal” has a minimalist construction requiring precision acting. This is Scott Thomas' specialty. A gifted film actress (“The English Patient,” “I've Loved You So Long”) who works best in confined and pressurized dramatic situations, she doesn't need great swaths of realism to get the job done. Her quicksilver nature, able to turn on a dime, is particularly well suited to Pinter, whose terse language swells with ambiguity and contradiction.

After Robert discovers, while on vacation with his wife in Italy, that Jerry has surreptitiously written to her, Scott Thomas' Emma, realizing that she has been found out, writhes in the hotel bed with a regret that seems oddly — yet fascinatingly — tinged with rage. Is Emma a cornered or a wounded animal? Scott Thomas knows that she's both and plays her accordingly, as only someone unafraid of the irrational aspect of complexity would dare to.

The term “Pinteresque” connotes the way the playwright invests ordinary objects with extraordinary menace. Scott Thomas' natural aptitude for this quality is evident in the way her Emma drapes a wrap around herself in the love nest that Jerry has set up for their trysts. The flat has grown chilly, literally and figuratively, and Emma covers herself with a strenuousness that dissolves the distinction between offense and defense. She is simultaneously protecting herself and withholding herself — a perfectly Pinteresque thing to do.

This resonant “Betrayal” is afoot with paradox. Perhaps none greater than the final one suggesting that Jerry, the character who instigated this whole sorry mess, may be the least capable of handling its sorrowful fallout. 

--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

Photo: Top: Kristin Scott Thomas. Bottom: Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles. Credit: Johan Persson.