It takes three to tango, and Jamie Lloyd’s “Betrayal” completely grasps that. Having made it his mission to modernize the way we stage Harold Pinter’s plays, his chic, stripped-down staging starring Tom Hiddleston as a cuckolded husband might be his best attempt yet. Pared back and played out on an empty stage, this masterful play becomes not just an aching account of an extramarital affair that eats away at all three people involved, but a glinting meditation on the myriad ways we betray ourselves, and the ways our hearts seem to harden with age.
Pinter’s play picks its way through the wreckage of a marriage, retracing its steps through a seven-year affair that runs in reverse. Hiddleston plays Robert, a publisher whose wife Emma (Zawe Ashton) is first seen assessing the end of her affair with his old university mate Jerry (Charlie Cox) — an affair that rewinds, scene by illicit scene, back to their very first tryst. It is a forensic examination of romantic breakdown.
But Lloyd taps into a central tenet of infidelity: the third party is always present. By trapping the trio on an empty stage, stripping away any sense of place, Lloyd makes them become the background to each other’s affairs. Every encounter — between lovers or rivals, between husband and wife — exists in relation to the person it leaves out. As Emma and Jerry idle away their afternoons in their shabby shag-pad, Hiddleston’s Robert cuts a stern, solitary figure upstage or spins around them, cradling Emma’s daughter in his arms. Cox sits, staring into space, while the married couple bickers on holiday in Venice and, when the two men meet for a boozy lunch, Emma’s visible elsewhere, lost in thought. There’s no losing sight of the situation. The betrayal is always plain to see.
It’s as if these three people keep coming between one another, and Soutra Gilmour’s set, with its twin revolves, spins adultery into a kind of choreography. The love triangle turns circles like the hands of a clock, or falls into sync like interlocking clogs. Sometimes they weave in and out of each other’s paths like a tightening knot. They’re caught, inextricably, in one another’s orbit, bound by some gravitational pull. It’s gorgeous, but awful: a situation without a solution that, very gradually, grinds all three of them down.
While Pinter wrote “Betrayal” out of personal experience, inspired by his own extramarital affair, Lloyd’s abstraction elevates its existential edge. Slowing the pace right down, stretching silences out with unspoken regrets as Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” swims mournfully overhead, Lloyd throws focus on passing time as well as fading love. As the years roll back, the three characters remain outwardly unchanged — no new haircuts, no cooler, youthful clothes. Only their attitudes seem to shift, and as the play winds backwards, each lightens and brightens in beautifully calibrated performances.
Hiddleston brings a sour spite to Robert, only cracking his first smile halfway through. This mournful, bitter man regains the easy confidence of his youth, pushing his hands through his hair like a Vidal Sassoon model. Once his pride is dented by his wife’s affair, he breaks down and, shockingly, admits “bashing” her. That explains Ashton’s initial aloofness, gaunt and tight-lipped to start, only to warm up, relaxing in the arms of Cox’s gentle, easy-going Jerry. He seems by far her better option and, indeed, if any single betrayal leaps out, it’s Emma’s inability to leave her husband for a new life. “Have you ever thought of changing your life?” she asks him idly, as the revolve makes the two men glide past one another, momentarily locking eyes.
Lloyd’s minimalist approach can feel a little too like a drama school exercise, as unarmed actors wring every inch of emotion out of a scene. Occasionally each teeters too far toward the emphatic — Hiddleston’s so aggressive with his prosciutto starter that you’d think he was stabbing the pig to death — but mostly these are rich, finely calibrated performance attuned to the agonies of life and the impossibilities of love. Both quietly radical and faithful to Pinter’s play, Lloyd has revealed “Betrayal” anew.