Harold Pinter’s play, based on a clandestine extramarital relationship he had in the 1960s, is the story of a seven year affair told in reverse chronological order. (You’ll acclimate.)
Emma (Zawe Ashton), who’s married to Robert (Tom Hiddleston), has had a seven year affair with her husband’s best friend, Jerry (Charlie Cox), who’s married to Judith, whom we never meet. Both couples have rarely mentioned children. A later glimpse of one is beautifully imagined, understated, and telling,
Emma has telephoned and arranged to meet Jerry two years after the affair dissipated. She tells him she finally confessed to Robert and that he admitted to liaisons of his own. Her marriage is over. Sitting side by side, Emma and Jerry barely look at one another while apparently remaining deeply attached. Dialogue is halting. British reserve abounds. “It’s grand of you to come,” she says, perhaps hopefully.
Robert, a publisher, and Jerry, an author’s agent, remain close. Male bonding in Pinter’s world takes precedence. Emma, a far less fleshed out person than the men, has no discernible profession. She reminds me of Bobbie in Carnal Knowledge, rather more symbolic than real. In fact, Bobbie had more personality.
Scenes take place in an apartment (love nest doesn’t fit in this production) secured by the illicit couple, at the men’s traditional weekly lunches (waiter Eddie Arnold injects a few moments of lightness), Emma and Robert’s home and their pivotal trip to Venice.
Director Jamie Lloyd choreographs the protagonists so that each scene seamlessly morphs into the next. No character leaves the stage as none are absent from the other’s lives or consciousness. Attention or lack of it is explicit. The splendid device of two revolving floor turntables, one inside the other, allows characters to move very, very slowly around, passing close, yet without contact; indicating influence, overlap, awareness.
Betrayal unspools in slow motion. Pauses are long and measured, feelings shrouded. Almost every interaction is manifest in a kind of fugue state. Robert’s intermittent, slightly manic smile is a rare exception of expression. Were the actors not totally in sympathy, their methodology in sync, this would create restlessness. As it is, we enter the state with them early on. Focus is terrific, the play, rather soulless.
Tom Hiddleston is a splendid, multifaceted actor. In my opinion, his best turn here is lunch with Jerry, having returned from Venice with secret knowledge of his wife’s betrayal. Innuendo underpins everything. He looks at Jerry as if he were a specimen, yet not in a manner his friend perceives. Nothing is revealed.
Charlie Cox’s Jerry, more of an everyman than Robert, comes most alive when, half way through, we watch him approach Emma for the first time at a party. He’s drunk and besotted, something difficult to pull off with credible sweetness and charm. (He does.)
As I’m unfamiliar with Zawe Ashton, I can’t conjecture how much of her frigid demeanor is direction. She’s certainly consistent. We have little sympathy for Emma and less belief in her ability to love, however.
This is the third iteration of Betrayal on Broadway starting in 1980. Like Harold Pinter’s spare language, masked emotion, and obscure motivation, the play has become increasingly stark in presentation. Scenic/Costume Designer Soutra Gilmour’s stage is bare but for two chairs and a backsplash. Apparel is contemporary minimalist. (Why is Emma barefoot?) There are no props except in the restaurant vignette. Lighting by Jon Clark is subtle.
A very modern production with effective direction, solid acting and no heart.
Photos by Marc Brenner
Opening: Zawe Ashton (Emma), Charlie Cox (Jerry), Tom Hiddleston (Robert)