Anyone who shelled out the big bucks to see James Bond in the flesh will get more than they bargained for in Mike Nichols’ impeccable revival of “Betrayal.” They’ll be getting a powerful performance from Daniel Craig, a movie star who still has his stage legs. Rachel Weisz, Craig’s wife in the real world, and Rafe Spall, both superb, claim much of the stage time as the adulterous lovers in this enigmatic 1978 play that Harold Pinter based on one of his own extramarital affairs. But it’s the smoldering Craig, as the cuckolded husband, whose brooding presence is overpowering.
The lyrical scrap of curtain-raising music (composed by James Murphy) that introduces the play fairly gushes with promises of love and romance. That marks the first ironic reversal in this endlessly fascinating play, because the opening scene, set in 1977, actually takes place in a dreary pub, where two onetime lovers are poking at the dead ashes of an old affair.
After awkward pleasantries about their respective spouses, families, and current lovers, it comes out that Emma (Weisz, movie-star gorgeous, but with bona fide acting chops) and Jerry (Spall, a revelation, could probably play anything handed to him) had a seven-year affair. Their love affair is long over, but no longer a secret because Emma has finally confessed all to her husband, Robert (Craig), a high-powered London publisher who happens to be Jerry’s best friend.
Trying to make the best of a bad thing, Jerry tries to apologize to his friend, only to learn that Robert has known about the affair for years — and rather assumed that Jerry knew he knew. Staged by Nichols as a close encounter in a tightly contained space, the scene drips with menace. Although the dialogue is quite civilized and utterly British, the underlying tone of Robert’s lines and the flashes of fury on Craig’s craggy face (even as he extends an invitation to play a friendly game of squash) give away the unspoken emotions at play. The repeated references to squash are positively chilling, and if custom allowed, we’d stand up and warn Jerry: Don’t you dare go onto the squash court with this guy — he will kill you dead!
Pinter being Pinter, the most shattering emotions are felt, but not expressed, in the silences between words. Nichols’ sense of timing in these subdued moments is infallible, allowing his actors to speak volumes about the inner lives of their characters without moving their lips.
Having established his theme of betrayal, Pinter explores it from every angle in scenes that play out in reverse chronology, tracking the affair from its downbeat ending in the couple’s love nest in 1975, through scenes of steamy passion (convincingly acted, it must be said), all the way back to the night the affair began, at a party at Robert and Emma’s house in 1968. With every shift in time comes another shift in reality and another change of scenery, artfully lighted by Brian MacDevitt, on Ian MacNeil’s dazzling set. There’s something hypnotic about these choreographed set changes. Scrims float up to the fly spaces, flats sail away into the wings and beautifully dressed beds appear as if by magic.
The construction of the play is brilliant, but in a perverse way, because every scene seems to contradict what we’ve learned in the preceding scene, raising questions about who is betraying whom in these sexual power games. And in the end, it does what every Pinter play does — make us rethink the characters and question every single thing they’ve said.