Harold Pinter Theatre, London ★★★★✩
LOKI versus Daredevil is probably one Marvel punch-up that will never reach the screen. But instead we have this starry climax to a season of Harold Pinter plays, one that pits their alter egos Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox against each other.
They play best friends Robert, a publisher, and literary agent Jerry, the two men in the life of Zawe Ashton’s stylish gallery owner Emma. Pinter’s tense dissection of an affair, first seen in 1978, is defined by one of the Nobel Laureate’s most creative acts — telling his story in reverse.
The curtain rises on Jamie Lloyd’s cool production with Cox’s Jerry and Ashton’s Emma in painfully polite conversation. They haven’t seen each other since their affair ended. To Jerry’s horror, Emma reveals that she has confessed about it to her husband, Hiddleston’s Robert.
Yet when Jerry attempts to talk to Robert about the betrayal, he finds that his friend is eerily unconcerned. Robert has, in fact, known about the affair for years.
And it’s here that Pinter unleashes the dark joke that runs throughout the 90 uninterrupted minutes of his play, about how betrayers have the affront to feel betrayed.
Meanwhile, the reversing timeline is conveyed by a revolving stage that whirrs like the mechanism of a timepiece. Each time it stops, Pinter’s characters are slightly less damaged. Emma is less haunted; Jerry, less bruised.
But it is Hiddleston’s transformation that defines the evening as the hollowed-out Robert we first encounter progressively — or should that be regressively — reveals the emotional stages that came before; the suppressed anger, the poleaxing moment when he discovered the affair, right back to the guileless husband he was when it all started.
It is a superbly judged performance and if Hiddleston isn’t considered for an award, he’ll have the right to feel slightly betrayed.