We have here Robert, a publisher; his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent; Emma, Robert’s sassy wife, a gallerist, for seven years Jerry’s clandestine mistress, but no longer so for two years. Unseen but talked about: Jerry’s wife, Judith, a nurse; each couple’s two children; Casey and Spinks, two novelists, the former perhaps about to become Emma’s next lover.
In a typical Harold Pinter play, characters, even if friends or kin, are involved in a power play. The dialogue, even if seemingly amicable, is double-bottomed, competitive and even threatening.. Running through it are, every few minutes, pauses—the famous Pinter pause—and often even longer silences.. The power shifts sometimes, back and forth, and can be as funny as it is malicious.
“Betrayal” is the rare Pinter work that does no conform to the formula, and is his most performed play. A few years ago we had a production of it with the gifted married couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, good, but the current one is even better. It features very imaginative direction by Jamie Lloyd, was a sold out hit in London, and has transferred to Broadway intact.
Lloyd has rejected specified locations, and has, designed by the talented Soutra Gilmour, a surround of tan flats, with what changes somewhat is the slowly and ominously revolving stage. Also, of course, incisive lighting by Jon Clark, and canny sound design and composition by Ben and Max Ringham.
Against all the neutral color, Gilmour’s costumes stand out darkly: both men in almost interchangeably as well as suggestively navy outfits. Between them is Emma, in equally dark trousers, but with a light blue blouse.
For seven years, Emma, escaped from the gallery in the afternoons, for an apartment in a distant, unchic area, which she has nicely furnished for the affair with Jerry. The play proceeds backward in time in two-year installments. We follow its mostly happy increments and may wonder, as Jerry does, that there has been no gossip about the lovers.
Lloyd has added a clever device. During the mostly two-person scenes with whichever man or sometimes the woman, the third member of the trio is seen upstage or to the side, usually immobile, a personification of their thoughts and sometimes guilt. Different, though, is the opening scene, two years after the affair has ended. On a whim, she herself cannot quite understand, Emma has summoned Jerry by phone to meet her at a pub they both know. She says, “Well, it’s sometimes nice to think back, isn’t it?” But she also says, “Listen. I didn’t want to see you for nostalgia. I mean what’s the point? I just wanted to see how you were. Truly. How are you?” When a “Darling” escapes him, she recoils. And they drink quite a bit: she glasses of wine, he pints of bitters.
It does emerge that Emma and Robert have spent the night in revelations, She tells about Jerry, he about flings he has been having all along. Now they may separate. She has been seeing a bit of Casey.
Three things come up quite a bit from time to time. One is literary talk: about whom Robert is publishing or not, and about what Emma thinks about books she is reading. The other thing is various places in Italy, Venice, Torcello, etc. and the novels of Casey and Spinks, and their lives. In particular. Thirdly, Robert envies the Italians and their “laughing Mediterranean ways.”
There is also much talk about shared lunches, one even see in a London Italian restaurant, with Robert and Jerry, best friends; after all, hasn’t Jerry been the best man at Robert and Emma’s wedding? And there is much talk about playing squash and not having played in quite a while, which takes up some of this fascinating scene, complete with amusing Italian waiter.
This is quite symbolic, as was a scene long ago, when with Robert, Emma, Judith and the children watching, Jerry was tossing up and catching Emma’s little daughter, Charlotte, who is now thirteen and talked about lunching with Casey. But that playing with little Charlotte, was it in Emma’s or in Jerry’s kitchen, they can’t agree. Not even some cherished memories can be trusted. And at times, even a spouse can be quite cruel. as when Robert remarks to Emma, “I always liked Jerry. To be honest, I liked him more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.”
As usual in “Betrayal”, the acting is excellent. Himself an actor, Pinter writes stuff that actors can have confident fun with. As Robert, Tom Hiddleston is handsome in such a very English way, as if even his face were made to comfortable bespoke measure. He is all tallness and fairness—who would want to betray him? Jerry, with dark beard and dark hair, could pass for an Italian lover providing a touch of romance that Charlie Cox supplies admirably.
But truly sensational is the Emma of Zawe Ashton, a devastating charmer of mixed British and Tunisian descent. She has both the darkness of her pants and the lightness of her shirt, and without being classically beautiful, manages to exude a sexiness rarely matched on stage. Even her elegant feet, which she keeps bare, have a kind of eloquence, contributing to the sensual slinkiness of the woman--or feline-- who sports them. The voice, the demeanor, the essence the actress
exudes, everything adds up to the spell she can easily cast on a husband or lover or novelist or two. (In real life Ms. Ashton is also a poet, playwright and novelist.)
The cast, in other words, down to the Italian waiter of Eddie Arnold, is flawless. Catch this show if you possibly can—the engagement is limited.