behind the scenes

These Chairs Deserve a Tony

Gio Ponti’s Superleggera chair on stage. Photo: Marc Brenner

There’s not much onstage in the new, minimalist production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, currently on Broadway, besides Tom Hiddleston, the actors who play his wife (Zawe Ashton) and best friend (Charlie Cox) — who are carrying on an affair — and two identical chairs that are so elegant I couldn’t take my eyes off them. When our theater critic Sarah Holdren reviewed the show, she praised the way director Jamie Lloyd’s “stripped-to-the-bone approach to the play’s environment lets the text breathe and stretch. We can really hear Pinter’s words pinging off the big blank wall of Soutra Gilmour’s set, with its neutral palette and vast, clean emptiness.” I wanted to know more about the chairs. When you look at them closely, you realize that there is a slight crick, a bending at the top, as if they are misbehaving. It turns out they’re by Italian designer Gio Ponti, who created them in 1957, and they’re called Superleggera. (Italian for “superlight” — you can buy this version for $710.) The action takes place in different locations over time rolled backwards, but the chairs are always there. I called up Lloyd and Gilmore to ask about their casting.

“The usual approach to Betrayal is that each scene is presented naturalistically,” Lloyd says. “When you go to the flat there is a scene change; when you to the restaurant there is a scene change.” But after directing a number of Pinter plays, he’d become convinced of the advantage of less-is-more staging. “We really wanted to strip the play out, to focus on the human relationships,” instead of the set, he says. “You’re actually looking for an emotional through line.”

The Ponti chairs were the first that Gilmore presented him, and he knew they were right immediately. “You can imagine I’m a fanatic about things like chairs, and I am also a huge fan of mid-century modern design because I think it was in touch with something quite rustic and handmade, and also with an elegant modernism,” says Gilmore. “We were interested in a space where all of the actors could be there all of the time, so that you never possibly forget one person’s part in the triangle, so we wanted this space that felt appropriate for them all to be inhabiting at all times. And had we gone for a pub, or something, it would have been really crazy for the other person to be sitting on a chair at the back of the pub. We needed a language of something much more universal and emotional and metaphorical.”

“There are very few bits of furniture that could cope with turning around, and turning around on a rake, and look like they belong to … anywhere, and everywhere,” said Gilmore “They could work in a restaurant and be emotional and be elegant, so I just — I am a big Gio Ponti fan, I think he is a kind of superintelligent designer, and really as soon as I saw those I thought, that’s them, that is the one. It doesn’t feel feel heavy in any way. It kind of floats in the same way that we want everybody else to float, and that tilt back, as you say, gives you a kind of emotional quality, and it’s so subtle. It’s like you might think it’s not there and then you see it there, and it’s so clever, that design, and it just sat very very nicely with a handmade quality and the finish we had chosen with the plaster finish (of the back wall of the set). I wanted something that would feel inside and outside and could be in Italy. It’s a finish that we all have a relationship with.”

For the actors, “they could all have very subtle different relationships whether they sat formally on it, or they sat astride it. Or they sat up against it, and that chair allowed for all of those things, and it was in rehearsals from day one, so it’s as much of a character onstage as anybody else, and it becomes all furniture, doesn’t it? It becomes everything in their lives; it becomes the empty house and the full house, and the romantic holiday spot that’s not romantic, you know, all of those things.”

Just as Pinter’s characters don’t say what they feel, “It’s what you don’t see in the design that makes it most effective,” says Lloyd. “The movement — obviously I wanted a sense of time passing, memory, connections to the past — are a big part of every Pinter play. And of course, Betrayal, most of the time you are moving backward. A real sense of moving through time and space was a kind of interesting notion. But it’s so delicate. It’s such a precise play, and you have to have a real discipline in creating it and performing it that every move has to be so subtle. It needed to have such a kind of simple elegance, to be able to change locations but to do it so effortlessly so that you never break the spell of the play, because there is so much tension underneath it all, isn’t there? And that quiet lonely pain underneath that exists through all the scenes, so it feels that you cannot break that in any way with a blackout or a sudden big scene change. And that revolve in the scene is doing what a cinematic score might do when you’re watching a movie. The movement of the set gives you a sense of something rumbling beneath them.”

These Chairs Need a Tony