How can such a cool play make us sweat? Chalk it up to the incredible heat generated by the starry cast of Broadway’s latest “Betrayal,” featuring Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover.
Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage. It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere to hide. Certainly not in the language, which is so famously spare that even the pauses pulse with unspoken emotion and hidden meaning. And definitely not in the staging, which is the essence of minimalism.
Soutra Gilmour’s clean-lined sets and monochromatic costumes, along with Jon Clark’s extraordinarily suggestive lighting, are visual definitions of the 14-year marriage of Robert (Hiddleston) and Emma (Ashton), and the intrusive inclusion of Emma’s lover Jerry (Cox). Penetrating strip lighting from above alternately exposes their faces and blots out their expressions by suddenly thrusting them into silhouette. And if that isn’t enough to illustrate the dynamic of their intertwined relationships, a revolving stage keeps pushing the characters together and then pulling them firmly apart in chilling tableaux of alienation.
All in all, Lloyd’s bold attack is a beautifully bleak approach to Pinter’s most relatable play, the dissection of a marriage, a love affair, and a friendship. Pinter famously said that, of all his plays, “Betrayal” is the one that most closely adheres to his own life.
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The narrative unfolds in reverse, opening with a devastating scene of the former lovers sitting in a café. Emma is clearly still attached to Jerry and to her fond memories of their affair, while Jerry seems to have put it far behind him. When Ashton delivers Emma’s line “Just like old times,” she gives it a flirtatious flip – only to encounter Jerry’s indifferent response: “Mmm.”
When she says that she has been thinking of him, Cox delivers Jerry’s unkind reaction – “Good God. Why?” – as a verbal slap in the face. (Emma doesn’t flinch, but I did.) And when she asks him if he ever thinks of her, his answer – “I don’t need to think of you” – is pure Pinteresque ambiguity.
But what’s a Pinter play without menace? Here, it’s Robert – in Hiddleston’s charged performance, a man who could either howl in pain or take Jerry’s head off — lurking off to the side, but never out of sight. His is a striking physical performance, as well as an emotionally complicated one. But his commanding presence is something of a feint. Robert may look like a pillar of strength, but of the three of them, he seems most likely to be permanently scarred by the double betrayal of his wife and his best friend.
From that searing opening scene, the play unfolds in reverse, all the way back to the beginning of this illicit affair, lightening in mood as it moves through time. There are, however, certain topical refrains that keep repeating themselves, like the two friends’ inability to set and follow up on a date to play squash – a manly sport known to bring out the beast in its players. It’s a cool Pinteresque joke to keep these two in a perpetual standoff. Is each man afraid to make such a bluntly symbolic attack on his rival, or are they both fearful of destroying their friendship?
Lloyd’s staging keeps all three characters onstage and quietly observing throughout the play, which sounds creepy and sort of is. But it’s also sort of trippy to catch glimpses of their hidden thoughts. Ashton is the most articulate in this body-speak. With her long, long legs and incredibly graceful movements, she gives Emma an enhanced presence that goes beyond words. Even when she’s in repose, you can’t tear your eyes away from her.
Thanks to the precision of Lloyd’s direction, our eyes are always focused on the proper bit of minimalist action – a quick sideways glance, a casual crossing of the legs – while our heads are occupied with Pinter’s layered thoughts. Of all Pinter’s often-puzzling work, this play is the one that clearly speaks to you, thinks for you, and may even feel for you.