Nobody likes pauses. Especially pauses in conversation where, staring into the dregs of a drink for inspiration, all remnants of stimulating or even mundane conversation seem to flee irretrievably into a mental void. An understated yet effective production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Salisbury Playhouse opens with just one such awkward moment, and tests us increasingly as the first scene goes on. If we sit naively in the audience expecting comfortable, constant action and narrative flow, we are just as betrayed as the men and women who play out their dysfunctional marital relations before us.

It’s hardly surprising that Emma (Kristy Besterman) and Jerry (Robert Mountford) are having an awkward conversation in a pub, given their shared parts in a seven-year affair which finally elapsed two years prior to the start of the play. People who have affairs don’t tend to inspire sympathy as fictional characters, but we might warm to these two who, at the moment when we first meet them, struggle to move the conversation beyond a floundering “I’m alright – are you alright?” “Yes I’m alright, how are you doing?” But Betrayal is a play rooted in power dynamics and we soon realise that Emma and Jerry neither need nor deserve our sympathy. The apparently forlorn, saddened Besterman – “do you ever think of me?” – shifts in the course of ten minutes to having the upper hand as she lets slip that she’d already revealed the affair to her husband Robert (Robert Hands). Jerry squeals in wounded indignation at the idea of the married couple being in cahoots about his own and Emma’s infidelity – “but he’s my best friend!” Betrayals come in many disguises.

Robert Mountford’s Jerry is a petulant, harmless, ineffectual foil to the sharp and careless Robert. In more comic moments, the two of them strike up a relationship and conversations of illogical circularity reminiscent of Yes Minister’s Humphrey Appleby and hapless Jim Hacker. Yet like this two-faced civil servant, Robert’s character was written more than thirty years ago, and at his most threatening Robert’s character brought into sharp relief the gap between Pinter’s time and our own. When he speaks of wanting to give his wife “a good bashing… that old itch… you understand”, Robert’s capabilities and desire for power is thrown sharply into relief. In one of the few scenes where the entire love triangle are on stage at the same time, one might imagine the cuckolded Robert to be at a disadvantage – the “third wheel” in his own living room. But not in the slightest – He and Emma share piercing glasses unseen by her lover, who seems to exist in his own bubble at the other end of the room, missing turns in the conversation and leaving little impression on the house on his departure. Robert commands the space, whilst remaining untouchable. The reason? He simply doesn’t care enough about anything.

To command the stage is no mean feat in what at times feels like an incongruously large space. Papered from wall to ceiling, the entire stage in the main house of the Salisbury Playhouse is used in all scenes, so that the small pub table of the first scene has an almost Alice-in-Wonderland feel in the lack of proportion between the contained action and the vastness of the backdrop. Props are wheeled in through flaps in the wall, including once an entire bed complete with the entangled bodies of Emma and Jerry. At another moment, a table spread with roses, wine classes, crockery and a cloth ascends with wobbling majesty through a trap door in the floor. It’s a nod to the production’s own fictionality, heightened by Jerry and Robert’s mutual career as literary agents in which books and authors must be constantly discussed. This provides plenty of scope to mock art to art-lovers – not an original trick in Pinter’s script, but a successful one in this production. Robert, as he pronounces with multi-syllabic emphasis to Jerry over lunch, hates liter-ita-rure. Our wry knowledge of his own role in “literature” as a character of Pinter’s creation is, bizarrely, one of the few moments in which we truly have a hold over Robert.

At this same lunch, having just discovered Jerry’s betrayal, Robert sits opposite his newfound rival and proceeds to down a bottle of wine and wolf a plate of prosciutto with unprecedented speed. His discomfort is obvious, too exaggerated to go unnoticed except in a world of pantomime. But Jerry notices nothing because this is only a story – or perhaps because things more fantastic and staged take place in real life every day. Excluded from the “real” lives of the characters of Betrayal, we are drip-fed scenes parcelled up into years and laid out before us in reverse order. This a study in looking backwards, beginning in 1977 and ending in 1971. We can’t anticipate the end because we’ve already seen it, and in this sense the play betrays itself. Knowing the ending doesn’t stop us being deceived: motifs and moments recur in memory and conversation so that we feel consistently wrong-footed when we realise, for example, precisely how Robert felt as he went over to Torcello to read Yeats (another poet, another dose of fiction).

Jerry, Robert and Emma deceive one another over and over again, but deception isn’t the same thing as betrayal. In What Good are the Arts? (Faber, 2005) John Carey raises the still lingering question of whether the arts in some way make us “better” people in a moral sense, only to point out all the reasons why this quite clearly isn’t the case. Betrayal is another of those reasons. Far from moralising, the play bleakly points out the great capacity humans have to violate trust or confidence in one another, and in doing so violates our expectations – of sympathy, of the fourth wall, of what it means to be an audience member – at the same time.

Betrayal is showing at the Salisbury Playhouse from the 7th – 23rd September. For more information and tickets see here.