Theatre Royal, Bath’s Welcome Back season kicks off reassuringly.
Harold Pinter’s 1978 dissection of infidelity, which charts the triangular treachery between Emma (Nancy Carroll), her husband Robert (Joseph Millson) and his best friend Jerry (Edward Bennett), is unexpectedly comforting fare in these pandemic times.
And not just because the very act of putting on a Pinter play is a civilising thing (as is going to see it) but because the human behaviour on stage is driven only by such eternal qualities as selfishness and desire.
For an audience watching in masks, with their hands slathered in sanitising gel, there is something nostalgic about the freedom with which we once lived, loved and hurt each other.
The action — which Pinter famously based on his affair with Joan Bakewell — begins in 1977 and ends seven years earlier. Also well known is the structure of the play, which spools back in time, starting with a rather awkward reunion in a pub between Emma and Jerry.
It is two years since their affair ended and to Jerry’s horror she tells him that during the previous night’s final throes of her marriage she told Robert of their affair. Yet in the next scene, slightly later, Jerry discovers that Robert knew of his betrayal for years. So Jerry too feels the indignation of being deceived.
Pinter’s interest is as much in the betrayal of a friendship as of a marriage, which makes it the brilliant piece it is.
Yet while this revival is impeccably performed, the sense of damage beneath the carapace of sophistication could be much more vivid. Take Jeremy Lloyd’s recent West End production with Tom Hiddleston as Robert, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox. For all its flashy minimalism that production conveyed the sense of being hollowed out by betrayal. This one — less high concept, more realism — is a more modest affair. Perhaps subtle is a better term.
There is an opportunity afforded by Pinter’s time-structure to see the emotional scars morph back into fresh wounds and then further into playful innocence. It’s like watching some grotesque psychological time-lapse in reverse. But this is not really exploited here, except perhaps by the always-excellent Carroll.
Over the production’s uninterrupted 70 minutes, her Emma beautifully conveys the tension that goes with a failed marriage, the abandon of an affair, right back to the carefree condition of having nothing to hide before it all started.
Meanwhile, in his polo-neck black sweater, Bennett’s Jerry invokes the style and insouciance of Pinter himself and Millson the simmering rage beneath Robert’s air of indifference.