Roger Michell directs plays — and, for that matter, movies — with a scalpel. As he has proved with Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and “Old Times,” he slices seamlessly beneath the surface and lifts back dialogue to reveal the heart beneath every beat of a text. That makes him the ideal director for Pinter’s masterpiece, “Betrayal,” in which text and subtext are held in extraordinarily tense balance. His cast in the Donmar revival, however, only intermittently matches the rigor of his analysis.
The play is famous for its reverse chronology. Across eight scenes, auds watch from the end of an adulterous relationship all the way back to the illicit first kiss. Here, Toby Stephens plays married Jerry, a literary agent who has had a seven-year affair with Emma (Dervla Kirwin), the wife of his publisher best friend Robert (Samuel West).
Despite the revelation of the affair within the opening minutes, the play hums with suspense. Auds are ahead of the game, perpetually granted hindsight that the characters lack. Having already witnessed the consequences of the characters’ constant lies and evasions, we become glued to the truth beneath.
On the first day of rehearsals for the original 1978 production, its director, Peter Hall, pointed out to his actors that he had cast three comedians. Wise decision. The play’s multiple deceits make for great drama — lies onstage make fascinating viewing — but it needs the lightness of touch that only the best comic actors have at their disposal.
Performing a role in “Betrayal” successfully is dependent upon playing layers. Its unique power stems not just from exposing the emotional undertow but maintaining an eloquent surface. Not for nothing does Emma ask, “What are you trying to say by saying that?” While Michell’s actors are certainly serious enough to delineate the pain underscoring their meetings, they are just too earnest.
In a play that depends absolutely on precision — comic or otherwise — at moments of highest emotion, Kirwin adopts a generalized tone of breathiness. She sounds strangled, which indicates that Emma is not coping but is not specific enough to show how or why. At other points she is so busy pointing up the subtext that Emma’s crucial veneer slips.
That’s why her strongest scene is the one in the Venice hotel room where a steely West slowly and ruthlessly exposes her lies. Kirwin physically contracts from languor to coiled up tension as West remorselessly forces the truth from her increasingly tear-stained face.
One consequence of Kirwin’s lack of controlling ease is that the play is rebalanced. In this production, it’s as if the primary relationship is between the two sparring men who constantly test and threaten their longstanding friendship.
Initially moving as he gazes at the woman he has loved and lost, Stephens’ Jerry is actually at his best adopting a chummy exterior while second-guessing what his cuckolded friend Robert does or doesn’t know. Maintaining a faintly louche physicality in a selection of suitably brown and beige ’70s clothes, his eyes dart nervously across the room, indicating his tense isolation.
West’s more buttoned-up Robert is the strongest component. His relish at the power he exerts over the other two is merciless. His ruthless pincer movements on them are horribly watchable. Even in Rick Fisher’s beautifully lit final scene, in which each of them in turn is isolated in a burnished glow against the black back wall, West conveys the sense that Robert already knows what’s afoot.
William Dudley’s spare design, consisting of minimal furniture on stained period floorboards, separates every scene by drawing sheer white curtains on sweeping curved tracks across the stage like screen wipes. Were the acting as simple and unadorned as that, the production might more fully achieve triangular tension.