Near the end of Betrayal—or near the beginning of the betrayal within Betrayal, since Harold Pinter’s 1978 play about a seven-year affair runs in reverse, from the infidelity’s aftermath to its inception—a soused would-be lover rattles on a bit: “Look at the way you’re looking at me. I can’t wait for you, I’m bowled over, I’m totally knocked out, you dazzle me … My life is in your hands, that’s what you’re banishing me to, a state of catatonia, do you know the State of Catatonia? Do you? Do you? The state of … where the reigning prince is the prince of emptiness, the prince of absence, the prince of desolation. I love you.”
In the royal family of Western drama, Pinter himself might be exactly the figure his intoxicated, infatuated character describes. His laconic, subtly brutal plays—known for the loaded pauses that now bear the writer’s adjectivized name—float precariously on a dark reservoir of things unsaid. His characters are like those waterbugs who balance above the depths on the delicate force of surface tension. He is not a universal taste, and mediocre Pinter productions have their own particular kind of cringiness: They feel like acting exercises. Even in sure-footed ventures into the Pinterverse—such as Jamie Lloyd’s lean and sexy revival starring Tom Hiddleston, now visiting New York after its London premiere—there can be an element of technical gloss to contend with. You can feel, as I did, like you’re watching Good Actors Acting Well, which is a matter of intellect rather than emotion. Impressive and interesting, yes. Devastating? (Pause.) Well.
Lloyd’s production is cool, confident, and mercifully aware of Pinter’s sense of humor. Some of its strongest moments are its unsmiling jokes, which Lloyd’s actors attack like fencers, pricking without overextending. Hiddleston—with his fixed blue stare and his ability to lock his jaw into a mask of British propriety, unmistakably undergirded with menace—is particularly adept with the playwright’s distinctive rhythms, his smirks, evasions, and threats. A vapid conversation between Hiddleston’s character, Robert, and his best friend Jerry (Charlie Cox) about whether boy babies are “more anxious” than girl babies becomes a master class in hard-edged, straight-faced comedy. But then the whole play has that “master class” feel to it: As much as the phrase has become a critical cliché for a tour de force, it’s not the same thing as “masterpiece.” There’s expertise on display, but there’s an academic distance to it too.
Part of the distancing effect might be that Hiddleston undoubtedly outshines his fellow actors, who are solid (and equally great-looking — this is Pinter with highly paid personal trainers) but never quite as at home in the material. Cox comes close, and indeed, his role gives him less of an ability to stand still and shoot lasers from his eyes, as Robert gets to. He has to maneuver, stumble, and course-correct more, and he does so with a bemused, affable charm that belies a deeply selfish character. Part of Betrayal’s fascination is that Jerry, who’s been having a hidden affair with Robert’s wife Emma (Zawe Ashton) for seven years, is in fact the “Pinter” role. From 1962 to 1969, Pinter himself concealed from his wife an affair with the BBC presenter Joan Bakewell (for her highly compelling take on their now immortalized-if-somewhat-fictionalized infidelity, click here). It’s arguable, though, that for all the playwright’s own experience inside a dangerous liaison, his play belongs not to the betrayers but to the betrayed. At least in Lloyd’s production, Robert—his moment of awakening and his eventual hardening of himself as a result—is the heart of the show.
It’s structural—the torturous scene in which Emma admits the affair to Robert sits smack-dab in the middle of the play—but it’s also a matter of actor and director inclination. As Robert learns the truth about Jerry and Emma, Hiddleston sits stone still and silently weeps until the snot hangs in ropes from his nose. There were quiet gasps in my audience when it started to drip, unheeded by this broken man in his moment of crisis. “Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something like that, something along those lines,” says Robert, with extreme Britishness, when Emma confesses — but there’s so much raw emotion pulsing underneath Hiddleston’s performance, and overflowing its container in this one pivotal scene, that the character can’t help but become the play’s tragic center. The way Hiddleston plays Robert, it’s difficult to believe it when Emma tells Jerry, “You know what I found out… last night? He’s betrayed me for years. He’s had… other women for years.”
Despite the real power of Hiddleston’s performance, that empathy gap strikes me as a flaw. We can’t quite take Emma at her word (we’ve also heard her lie on other important matters), and so the scales of Lloyd’s production end up tipped rather than balanced. It seems to be a play about a victim and two perpetrators — but I think it’s a play about three people, all of whom we should empathize with, all of whom we should mistrust, all of whom are capable of great selfishness. Ashton has the hardest job: Emma’s got that sense of mystery about her that sometimes happens when men, even very talented men, write women. The scenes between Robert and Jerry, though often tense and terse, feel lived, red-blooded, affectionate. Emma often seems ethereal — her motivations and actual desires somehow far away. (For a real bust-up of that trope, get into Bakewell’s essay — there’s no mystery woman there; instead there’s a super-smart Cambridge grad who was expected to become a housewife and mother at 25.) The character is already the most opaque in the play, and Ashton’s performance doesn’t do much to elucidate her. Tall and willowy, with bare feet and a dancer’s limbs, she tucks her hair behind her ears, tilts her head and half smiles. It’s clear she likes Jerry’s attention, but it’s not clear where her own deep hungers lie. Lloyd has her leaning into the enigmatic aura Pinter gave Emma, and it renders Ashton less visceral and—and this is the real problem—less sympathetic than her male counterparts.
Still, 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 that put us in mind of the art gallery where Emma works. In this white box, the three actors move like dark ghosts, memories of themselves with all the clutter stripped away. They turn slowly on a big revolve, and, crucially, Lloyd keeps all three present throughout, so that the shadow presence of the third always influences scenes between the other two. The staging restores some of the balance that’s lost in the performances. It brings back the sense that any affair, especially one that involves friends, is in fact a triangle, and that out at the corners of such a hard, angular form, even in our desperate flight from loneliness, we’re more isolated than ever.
Betrayal is at the Jacobs Theatre.