Two words form the emotional hinge on which any production of Betrayal swings: “Five years!” They’re spoken by Robert, a book publisher. His wife Emma, who runs a successful gallery, reveals that she has been having an affair with Jerry, an agent and his best friend. It has been going on for half a decade.
Harold Pinter’s one-act drama seethes with emotions that are, for most of its 90 minutes, as neatly trimmed as a Gin Lane hedge, a triangulated subterfuge of ironic talk and humid ellipses. Robert’s response can be played as stunned amazement, even admiration, at how successfully Emma and Jerry covered the tracks of an intimacy that included a rented flat, cozily accoutered for their weekday afternoon trysts. Or it can expose a palpable wound – a calibrated signifier of Robert’s brief undoing that shatters the politesse.
I’ve seen half a dozen fine productions of the play. None bore much resemblance to the others, especially regarding the moment that finds Robert in the wake of Emma’s reveal. But watching snot dangle from Tom Hiddleston’s nose, inching chinward and glinting in the stage light like tinsel on a Christmas-tree branch, was a revelation, Robert’s crisp façade cracked by that most human reaction to a loved one’s confession of betrayal. Not deception in the sense of a mere fling, which might be acceptable. But an enduring affair with the best friend who, Robert jabs at his wife, “to be honest, I’ve always liked … rather more than I’ve liked you.”
Some of the scenes are accompanied by eerie music, but the ones in which the words cut deepest are italicized by Martin Gore’s “Enjoy the Silence,” mournfully sung by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra: “Words like violence break the silence that comes crashing in into my little world,” it goes. “Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm. Words are meaningless and forgettable.” Oh, the chic irony of it all…
You probably know already that Pinter wrote Betrayal in the wake of his own long affair while married. His conceit, or gimmick, was to tell the story in reverse time, beginning in 1977, when Jerry and Emma meet up for a drink two years after their affair has ended, and shuffling back to Robert and Emma’s wedding celebration in 1968, when Jerry drunkenly pronounces his bedazzlement and shares a fervid clinch with Emma before Robert finds them in an upstairs bedroom.
Traversing the swinging 60s and the Me 70s has inspired directors to turn the play’s nine scenes into a pageant of evolving clothes and hairstyles, not to mention sexual mores. Mike Nichols’ mostly derided slug-and-hug fest of six years back had a charged animalistic urgency, with Daniel Craig, Rafe Spall and Rachel Weisz going at it with unbridled concupiscence. But that is precisely what director Jamie Lloyd, his design team and his spectacular cast, which includes Zawe Ashton as an almost girlish, calculating Emma and Charlie Cox as the outplayed Jerry, definitively abjure.
Cool is the defining esthetic, starting with the thermostat in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which seems to have been set at a blue-lipped temperature only nominally above 32 degrees. The stage is dominated by a blank wall that occasionally shifts backward or forward to alter perspective, and a few chairs. The clothes (Soutra Gilmore did the set and costumes) remain stylishly unchanged: Hiddleston, buff in black (trousers, long-sleeve tee-shirt, blazer); Cox, slouchy (black jeans, gray tee-shirt and jacket); Ashton, deceptively fetching (blue denims and a sheer v-neck blouse).
The three actors never leave the stage. When two are working out their painful business or games of one-upsmanship (Robert tends to veil his aggression in talk of squash, though he admits to Jerry that he has “hit Emma once or twice … I just felt like giving her a good bashing. The old itch … you understand”), a pair of turntables keeps the odd actor on the periphery, lurking or eavesdropping and sometimes has all three slowly circling, shifting position in power plays where no one wins.
But that’s a state of affairs we’re in on from the beginning (or the ending, if you will). It’s also where the gimmick of reverse chronology leaves us unmoored. Pinter acknowledges the flaw, having several scenes move forward to complete a chapter, rather than continuing to recede when it would make a hash of the tale. It’s in the play’s opening that Emma calls their secret space a place “for fucking” despite Jerry’s weak-tea protestation that it was “for loving.” That tells us more about this trio than most of what follows.
To Lloyd’s credit, and that of this spectacular cast, we never lose sight of the ways in which these three lives are ineradicably interwoven, giving more power to the emptiness and emotional wreckage their actions have wrought – despite their best attempts to be so very British about it all. The truth is visible there, in the splintered light glinting off a trail of mucus, loosed by the wrench of unexpected grief.