For those who have seen one of the many revivals of Harold Pinter’s brilliant, award winning play Betrayal or its film equivalent (1983), you cannot help but be engaged following the intrigue and duplicity of the triangulated relationship between married couple Emma and Robert, and close friend Jerry. In Betrayal, Pinter raises deceitfulness to a fine art as he memorializes how a convolution of lies evolve into the death of a marriage. The current revival directed with exceptional insight and precision by Jamie Lloyd and acted to perfection by Tom Hiddleston (Robert) Zawe Ashton (Emma) and Charlie Cox (Jerry) at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, vaults Pinter’s work into the heavens.
Though I have not seen every revival, this one most probably exceeds productions that came before it with few exceptions, perhaps the only one being the production in 2013 directed by Mike Nichols starring real-life-couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. However, I cannot adequately compare for this spectacular production is mind-blowing. It took my breath away.
Director Jamie Lloyd removes any extraneous spectacle of sets, props, costumes. He supplants them with unobtrusive design elements to enhance Pinter’s themes so we focus on the interactions of the three principals and their responses to each other both sub rosa and manifest. Lloyd retains a spare physicality during scene changes employing the use of a revolving platform to spin the characters back into time and flashback where they finally land on the “beginning” event in Emma’s/Robert’s bedroom. It is then in 1968 when Jerry poetically, fervently seduces Emma mentally and plants the seeds of the irrevocable ending of it all in her consciousness. In a reverse chronological order we witness the ending dissolution of the marriage at the top of the play. Pinter reveals in reverse the salient conversations which slide back to the initial thrusts of “love and betrayal” between Jerry and Emma which are integral to their relationship with Robert. who manages to retain control despite their duplicity with a mendacity all his own.
To clarify the structure of the seven year affair, Lloyd adds projections of the backward turning years on the wall and the front of the proscenium. Thus, we note in backward evolution events which lead to the primal moment when the canker worm of adultery first nestles on the flower of Robert’s and Emma’s marriage, a worm which we witness from the initial scene and which completely has eaten away Emma’s, Robert’s and Jerry’s well being and peace. However, at the top, like most interactions we ourselves have, we are not sure what we witness until the final revelation of deceit at the play’s conclusion.
For the entire production, Lloyd has constructed as the main set piece, the backdrop of a blandly colored wall at the rear of the stage against which the actor not engaged in a scene stands facing the audience or leaning in profile. Lloyd’s enlightened staging reinforces the nature of the relationship among Robert, Emma and Jerry as if they are one being and entity. It also heightens the notion that the one absent is everpresent in the others’ minds, and that he or she will be the subject of the conversation between the other two.
Maintaining the presence of all the principals on stage whether they are actively engaged or silently hovering, also elucidates the nature and condition of each. It is as if they enjoy the necessity of being a “threesome” of duplicity, though they are not a “threesome” physically or sexually. Nevertheless, each is seared and entrapped in the consciousness of the other two and never really is far away from “them” when the other two are together cheating “behind his/her back.” The fascinating staging furthers Lloyd’s theme: if there is to be an affair, the three are perhaps most satisfied in being clandestine with each other in a strange egotistical and mental sadomasochism which allows them to continue betraying and misleading each other for years. Thus, the themes of betrayal for each of the characters is nuanced and layered and because Robert, Jerry and Emma cannot confront the truth of their own illness of self-deception, the destruction of their relationships between and among each other grows, despite their willful obliviousness.
Lloyd’s focus on psyche and consciousness rises to great thematic purpose and illustrates why Pinter never includes the presence of Judith, Jerry’s spouse or the others with whom Robert and Emma are having affairs. These others are ancillary to the vitality of the psychic “threesome.” As a result we understand how Emma, Robert and Jerry function together swimming in the medium of lies pulling toward and against each other to an inevitable dissolution of what they once were before the affair between Emma and Jerry began.
For what Lloyd’s staging and incredible direction with the equally scintillating acting by Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox evokes and symbolizes, we experience a production which is thrilling, alive, masterful. For in the hands, minds and instruments of these brilliant talents, Pinter’s Betrayal is a play about consciousness and the emotional and mental agility of ego, impulse, deflection and undercurrent so that we understand each character’s intentions and feelings though these may never be expressed and may hover as the unspoken and insidious. Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox circle smugly around the truth, even to the point of lying about “how they are doing.” All are doing poorly, considering they’ve blown apart love and friendship and have reveled in allowing a cover-up to persist with a sub rosa disdain and rebuke of each other. We witness a tragedy which the characters are loathe to admit. Only the waiter wonderfully portrayed by Eddie Arnold remains cheerful, positive and authentic.
Interestingly, when prodded, the characters deflect. Typical of Pinteresque dialogue, a simple “How are you?” and response of “Fine,” becomes weighted with subterranean meaning and import. The individual whether Robert or Emma or Jerry is not fine. Indeed, their souls are in tatters. Though the relationship between and among each was profound (Emma and Robert have two children together, one after she sleeps with Jerry; Robert actually likes Jerry better than Emma) it is not intimate. Each is an isolate, separate and alone, inauthentic, insincere, manipulative. Pinter displays the very core of friendship and love for these three. They lovingly, charmingly, metaphorically stab each other again and again in the back while smiling in each other’s faces. They accomplish their treacheries to preserve ego. Meanwhile, how can their center hold? Eventually, it doesn’t.
Of course this is the human condition: fronting, saving face. God forbid these would admit hurt, pain and torment. God forbid Robert would smash Jerry’s head in for seducing his wife or confront Jerry with the truth. God forbid Emma and Robert would go to therapy. Instead, we discover that Robert becomes “all right” with their affair and doesn’t share his knowledge with Jerry punitively, until Jerry furiously confronts him after the affair is over for two years. Likewise, Emma’s ego is shattered when she discovers Robert punishingly, ironically, has been unfaithful to her for years. Thus, we note how Robert has controlled Jerry and Emma and manipulated them while letting them believe he was the “weakling” and cuckold. That he encourages it and that they are outraged at his behavior and unfaithfulness is the height of irony, humor and cynicism.
What particularly enthralled me was the emotional grist of Hiddleston, Zawe and Cox revealed at various times when the truth smashes into them. The actors allow us to see glimpses of the pain the characters are hiding. This occurs, for example: when Hiddleston initially discovers Emma’s letter to Jerry; when Emma discovers her marriage which has been over for years, is finally over; when Jerry discovers with outrage how Robert hid his knowledge of the affair from him for four years without a stir or breath of upset or anger. Each of them plodded on living with their own perfidy and self- deception without feeling the necessity of coming to an end of themselves in truth. Cox, Hiddleston and Zawe are absolutely stunning in their moment-to-moment responses to each other. Theirs is breathtaking ensemble work.
Betrayal is a magnificent production. I didn’t want it to end and the standing ovation wasn’t enough appreciation, surely, for such marvelous work. Kudos to Soutra Gilmour (scenic & costume design) Jon Clark (lighting design) Ben and Max Ringham (sound design and composition) for executing Jamie Lloyd’s vision and in creating a medium in which the actors’ portrayals are encouraged to vibrate with life.
Betrayal runs with no intermission at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street) until 8 December. Don’t miss this theatrical event which will surely bring in nominations for the cast and director. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.