June 20 (Bloomberg) -- Kristin Scott Thomas wrinkles her eyes quizzically. She hides a smile with a mix of vulnerability, self-satisfaction and amusement. Then she lies.
She’s on fantastic form in Harold Pinter’s 1978 drama “Betrayal” in London. She plays Emma, a gallery owner who has a seven-year affair with her husband’s best friend Jerry. She confesses the affair without telling her lover, providing the framework for a series of dialogues loaded with ambiguous pauses, concealed emotion and pregnant uncertainties.
Based on Pinter’s own adultery with TV presenter Joan Bakewell, the story is told in reverse chronological order. It cleverly leaves the audience uncertain about which lies have been told, which kept quiet, and who is betraying whom.
We know at least that Emma betrays both men in her life. She could be seen as manipulative, smug and passive-aggressive. While Scott Thomas doesn’t shy away from exposing these things, she rounds them out with deep-buried frailty and warmth too. To watch emotions tumble across her beautiful Roman-statue features with the speed of thought is to watch an actress at the top of her game.
It doesn’t hurt that she looks catwalk-glamorous in a series of delicious period frocks (the action takes place between 1968 and 1977) co-designed by Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent. A cool flowery, muslin dress with a wide leather belt is a particular stunner.
Her colleagues are no slouches either. Douglas Henshall is endearingly puppyish and earnest as Jerry, and Ben Miles brings a hint of simmering brutality to husband Robert.
The action looks great on Jeremy Herbert’s simple folding-wall set, which switches with ease from a shabby bedsit to a modish 1970s living room to a Venetian hotel.
It’s still slightly less than the sum of its parts. Director Ian Rickson doesn’t quite provide the right glue to hold it all together.
Sometimes the acting seems too naturalistic for Pinter’s non-realistic rhythms. Sometimes the underlying tension -- Robert’s anger in particular -- breaks too baldly into those famously delicate pauses. The tone can feel inconsistent.
Thankfully that doesn’t pull the play too far off course. And it’s still a treat to see Harold Pinter’s most easily accessible work with such a compelling star.
If it were to be performed uncut, Ibsen’s 1873 drama “Emperor and Galilean” would take around nine hours.
For the play’s first U.K. production, dramatist Ben Power has cut it down to three and a half. That’s still three and a half hours too long.
It tells the story of Julian the Apostate (AD 331-363), a Roman emperor who tried to reconvert his lands away from Christianity back to paganism.
It has all the psychological insight of a real-estate infomercial. Julian himself is the only character with light and shade, and even then his motivations still seem obscure.
The rest of the characters remain static mouthpieces, circling around the central figure repeating their different points of view.
Jonathan Kent’s modern-dress staging is lavish. There are hordes of extras, a spectacular revolving set, and glittering Byzantine processions. If he draws the parallels between Julian’s final stalemate war in the desert and the current situation in the east with predictable obviousness, that’s hardly the most pressing problem with this show.
Nor is Andrew Scott’s tour-de-force performance as Julian, a character rarely off stage. He deserves a medal for his stamina if nothing else.
The problems lie with the windy, dry text. It won’t be a hardship if we have to wait another 138 years for the next UK production.
“Betrayal” is at the Comedy Theatre. Information: http://www.betrayaltheplay.com or +44-844-871-7622
“Emperor and Galilean” is in repertory at the National Theatre. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk +44-20-7452-3000
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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