The Theatreguide.London Review
Comedy Theatre Summer 2011
Harold Pinter's 1978 drama tells the story of a seven-year affair between a married woman and her husband's married best friend, making the point that the adultery is but one, and not necessarily the largest, of several disloyalties.
Given the nature of male bonding, the violation of friendship could be greater than that of marriage, while the fact that the husband knew and did not tell his friend he knew is also some sort of betrayal, as is the discovery that the lovers wanted different things from the affair and thought of it differently.
To underline the ironies, Pinter tells the story backwards, beginning with a rueful meeting of the former lovers some time later, and ending with the first declaration of love.
Despite his characteristically elliptical and allusive style, Pinter's script is so rich that various casts and directors have found different aspects to explore and illuminate.
The first National Theatre production took a cool observer's view of the ironies, while the 1983 film centred on the husband's vengeance in refusing to play the role expected of him, and other stage revivals have focussed on individual psychology, seeing for example how the wife was trying to create an alternative marriage filled with domestic warmth her actual one lacked.
This time around, director Ian Rickson and his admirable cast make us especially aware of the emotional strain of the situation on all three characters.
There is hardly a scene in the play in which at least one of them is not moved to tears or near-weeping, just from the pressure of their complicated and inexpressible feelings.
This is particularly clear and touching in Kristin Scott Thomas's Emma, tortured not so much by guilt as by flashes of realisation that the affair is not giving her what she wanted from it.
In the first scene, a seemingly innocent encounter with Douglas Henshall's Jerry two years after the end of the affair, she realises that he remembers it as just a pleasant fling rather than the life-changing experience she had hoped it would be; and when he declares his love for her in the last scene, Scott Thomas's face shows a battle between hope and a premonition of doom.
Douglas Henshall makes it clear that Jerry is out of his emotional depth from start to finish, but only occasionally aware that he is not waving but drowning, as when he can't handle the discovery that Ben Miles' Robert knew about the affair for years and at least pretends not to care.
And Miles lets us glimpse the emotional price Robert has to pay to sustain this mask of indifference, particularly in the Venice scene in which he first gets confirmation of the affair.
In short, this excellent and frequently very moving revival illuminates aspects of the play that even those who know it will find fresh and evocative, while making very real Pinter's insight that no encounter between people is likely to be free of betrayal and its emotional fallout.
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