In keeping with the failed love affair at the center of the action, I broke up with Betrayal earlier this year. A particularly chilly production here in Philadelphia confirmed my long-standing impression of Harold Pinter’s 1978 adultery drama as glib and empty. My theatergoing life, I thought, would certainly be improved by a lack of Oxbridge and Yeats references, the constant evocation of squash as code for male inscrutableness, and those interminable pauses.
Around the time of my renunciation, West End wags started swooning over a new production starring Tom (Loki) Hiddleston and Charlie (Daredevil) Cox. London revivals of Betrayal crop up quicker than weeds, but Jamie Lloyd’s deconstructed approach caught fire, guaranteeing a swift transfer to Broadway. It turns out that just like Emma and Jerry, the downtrodden duo who are durably drawn to each other, I just can’t keep away either. Life imitates art.
I went into this production, which also features the acclaimed British stage actress Zawe Ashton, grumbling about what would surely be another opaque afternoon spent in the company of reprehensible characters who deserve the pain they cause each other. I left with an oddly sympathetic view of these self-destructive people, who can’t seem to get out of their own way. Yes, they destroy their own happiness again and again. For the first time, it feels like they don’t do it out of spite.
Credit goes to Lloyd, whose austere aesthetic surprisingly punctures the play’s pomposity. Betrayal is very much a work of its era–the action takes place between 1977 and 1968, in reverse chronological order–and a faithful rendering can quickly devolve into a series of period tropes: an amalgamation of free-love swinging sixties and stiff-upper-lip seventies. Lloyd sets the drama at an indeterminate time, with a blank unit set and era-eclipsing costumes (both by Soutra Gilmour). Stripped to its bare essence, the story becomes universal and timeless.
Lloyd’s approach is not immune to stereotypically avant-garde touches. There is a turntable, rotating slowly to suggest the passage of time. The lighting (by Jon Clark) is often abrasive, the sound design (by Ben and Max Ringham) overly suggestive. The three main actors never leave the stage over the 90-minute running time, even during scenes in which they are not featured. For an unexplained reason, Ashton’s Emma doesn’t wear shoes.
Yet more often than not, these familiar choices work, creating layers of meaning that the text frankly lacks. The constant presence of the characters produces an aura of leering voyeurism, and also suggests that even the best-kept secret cannot be fully suppressed. (A running theme of the play involves a lack of clarity as to when Robert, Emma’s husband, first learned of her affair with Jerry.) Hiddleston’s Robert lingers on the fringes of the play’s first scene, when Emma and Jerry meet after a two-year separation. Ashton becomes the silent menace shortly thereafter, as Jerry and Robert rehash how the infidelity has harmed their friendship. When Robert and Emma take a trip to Italy in the play’s midpoint, Cox’s Jerry silently joins the sojourn. Lloyd continually reminds the audience that three is always a crowd.
The performances of the central trio–easily the strongest and most copacetic grouping I’ve ever seen in this work–also subvert expectations. Hiddleston locates the vulnerability beneath Robert’s outward bravado, while Ashton delivers a calculating, caustic Emma. This shifts the dynamic of their relationship in a refreshing way–Emma seems less a put-upon housewife than usual and more of an active agent of chaos. The Italian vacation scene, often staged as pure melodrama, is imbued with new energy, as Robert overflows with emotion while Emma remains placid and pragmatic. Hiddleston is arresting in his portrayal of a man who desperately craves his wife’s approval.
Ashton’s acerbic, almost dominant take on Emma adds layers elsewhere. When she declares her intent to leave Robert after learning that he too has been unfaithful, the reason seems less to do with a loss of control than with wounded pride. Similarly, the suggestion of the first scene that she might reunite with Jerry centers more than ever on her ability to manipulate him. Ashton also brings a vibrancy to her line readings throughout that nicely contrasts Pinter’s china-doll rendering of Emma in the script.
For his part, Cox suggests an equal attraction to Emma and to Robert, which adds another layer to the proceedings–the idea that Jerry sleeps with Emma as a proxy for Robert. Given Pinter’s relentless heterosexuality, it goes without saying that this angle is extra-textual, but Cox and Hiddleston exude such overwhelming chemistry that it ends up feeling undeniable. And a bit of blocking where the three friends find themselves wrapped in each other’s arms looks like something out of Jules and Jim.
Not every innovation works. Lloyd hasn’t figured out a way to make the Italian restaurant scene bearable; it still grinds the proceedings to a jokey halt. (Eddie Arnold plays the heavily accented waiter, and also understudies Hiddleston and Cox.) And the inclusion of an invented fifth character, which I won’t discuss in detail, begins promisingly but quickly spirals into mawkishness.
But taken in total, this Betrayal does what every revival should: it presents a new way of seeing a familiar work. That view is stark, stunning, and utterly overwhelming.
Betrayal plays at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through December 8. For tickets and information, click here.
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