Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox play the three points of Harold Pinter’s adulterous triangle in Jamie Lloyd’s superb production from London.
by David Rooney
Reverse chronology has become a familiar narrative device in film, but when Harold Pinter employed it in 1978 in his blisteringly personal drama about an extramarital affair, Betrayal, it was still uncommon enough to become highly influential. It makes the drama start from a place of awkwardness steeped in grief, two years after the illicit liaison has finished, and end at the beginning, with a rapturous sense of secret possibility, marbled by the deep vein of melancholy present from the first scene. That emotional complexity smolders like hot coals in Jamie Lloyd’s expertly calibrated production, transferring to Broadway direct from its hit London engagement.
The headline news is the commanding Broadway debut of Tom Hiddleston, taking a breather from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to revisit the stage roots to which he has returned periodically throughout his career. The coolly charismatic star is matched at every step by Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox, the latter trailing his own Marvel association from Netflix’s Daredevil.
Lloyd staged Betrayal, one of the tightest and most straightforward (albeit back to front) of Pinter’s full-length plays, as the unorthodox culmination of an acclaimed London season of the dramatist’s one-acts. The director’s feeling for Pinter’s tricky rhythms, his freighted silences, glacial distances and brittle intimacies is unerring, evident not just in the dialogue-driven moments but also in the physical staging, the austerely elegant design choices, the stunningly descriptive use of shadow in Jon Clark’s lighting and the precise attention to movement.
The action unfolds in bars, restaurants, family homes, a regular assignation address and a Venetian hotel. But designer Soutra Gilmour’s set is a simple, stark rear wall in slate gray that makes intimate advances on the actors at times, with a sparingly used turntable that suggests the unkind passing of time, even as the scenes play out in backwards order. Among the few props are two chairs, the glasses or bottles required for a variety of alcohol, cigarettes, of course, and only late in the play, a table with an Italian linen tablecloth that becomes the saddest sight you’ll ever see.
The three principal actors are onstage for the duration, with the third player at first remaining detached in the background through each of the mostly two-character scenes. But almost imperceptibly, the tiniest flicker of reaction begins playing across the face or in the body language of the silent additional presence as key information is divulged, twisting the knife as to who knew what and for how long. It’s a masterstroke of direction, adding lacerating stabs of hurt to a drama in which none of the protagonists is overly sympathetic.
The parties involved, all in their mid-30s, are Robert (Hiddleston), a London publisher; his wife Emma (Ashton), who runs a gallery; and Jerry (Cox), a literary agent who also has an unseen wife at home. Each couple has two children. Complicating the seven-year affair of Emma and Jerry is the friendship of much longer duration between Robert and Jerry, who was best man at their wedding. The two first met when both were bright young things editing poetry magazines, Robert at Oxford and Jerry at Cambridge.
Pinter, and in turn here, Lloyd, get much mileage out of the urbane sophistication of these very English characters, consistently testing the strain beneath their polite small talk and practiced civility, with an edge of formality even between spouses and lovers.
It’s thrilling when the simmering rage beneath Robert’s smooth, at times bordering on smug, surface bubbles up, for instance in a discussion of the male ritual of a squash game followed by a pint at the pub and then lunch, his exclusion of Emma delivered like a casual body blow. Or during one such lunch with Jerry, when he rants about the tediousness of launching a novel while ferociously attacking a plate of prosciutto and melon. That his anger is never directed openly at its target doesn’t make it sting any less.
But it’s in those moments when the armor of Robert’s composure is pierced by vulnerability that Hiddleston’s performance truly dazzles. A scene in Venice, during which Robert dances around his suspicions to the point where Emma reads the knowledge of her transgression in his eyes and chooses that moment to confess, is made all the more wrenching by its restraint. As they sit side by side and she provides key details — location of their trysts, how long it’s been going on, reassurance about the paternity of their youngest child — Robert stares straight ahead, impassively absorbing the full impact as his eyes pool with tears. The generally guarded Emma’s sudden emotional release is quite different, but no less affecting in Ashton’s self-possessed but finely layered performance.
Lloyd’s brisk scene transitions add texture to the drama throughout, notably when that painful exchange segues to Emma and Jerry meeting at the suburban flat they’ve been renting, the shadow of their embrace seeming to infect the still-seated Robert like a virus.
The uncustomary choice to show one of Robert and Emma’s children (an adorable girl played at the performance reviewed by Emma Lyles) also pays off. Repeated reference is made to Jerry tossing her up in the air and catching her one afternoon in their kitchen — or was it his? It rips your heart out to watch the child giggle with joy when that happens before curling up in her father’s arms to sleep as Emma then meets with Robert early in their relationship, seemingly contemplating making a permanent change.
It might be argued that Lloyd’s repeat use of a chilled-out, female-vocal cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” is a little on the nose for Pinter (“Words like violence / Break the silence”). But the effect is powerful and the music choices, including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Norwegian electronic duo Royskopp, help thread one scene to the next, as words and wounds bleed into the spaces between.
At the beginning of the play (which is the end of the story), Robert’s infidelities also have contributed to end the marriage, two years after Emma has broken off the affair with a still-aching Jerry. But of the three, Jerry is arguably the only one who wears his guilt visibly. The excellent Cox plays that burden with a palpable sense of the pain beneath Jerry’s studied attempts to keep things light and breezy. His declaration to Emma in the final scene, at the start of their love story, is one of the most searing Pinter monologues — ecstatic in its expression of romantic feeling and yet desolate in the awareness that Emma is condemning Jerry to a kind of exquisite misery.
“I can’t ever sleep again, no, listen, it’s the truth, I won’t walk, I’ll be a cripple, I’ll descend, I’ll diminish, into total paralysis, 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.”
Those last three little words never sounded so doomed. The smile of contentment as Robert interrupts them, entering the room from the party all three are attending, seems veiled on Hiddleston’s face with a suggestion that he already sees what’s happening. And Lloyd stages the closing moments like a mournful dance, anticipating the pain of what’s to come.
It’s just six years since the last sizzling Broadway revival of this work, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall, all in top form. But this very fine production makes an absolutely compelling case for returning so quickly to the play, in which betrayals cut in every direction — between couples, friends and within the characters themselves. Lloyd and his actors illuminate a glimmering darkness in the drama, a deeper well of sorrows that linger in the air even after the cast take their bows.
If there’s one nagging issue, it’s with the audience, not the production. While it’s great for business that fans flock to Broadway to see an MCU star like Hiddleston showing consummate skill, the constant laughs at inappropriate moments must be distracting for the actors, particularly in the many moments of quiet devastation. Sure, there are sparks of dry humor throughout Betrayal, but c’mon people, it’s Pinter, not Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s for grownups.
Review: Tom Hiddleston in a Love Triangle Undone by ‘Betrayal’
Mr. Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox portray three friends in flux in Jamie Lloyd’s revelatory interpretation of a Harold Pinter classic.
By Ben Brantley
How can a naked space seem so full? Feelings furnish the stage in the resplendently spare new production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which opened on Thursday night at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, and they shimmer, bend and change color like light streaming through a prism.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd — and acted with surgical precision by Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox — this stripped-down revival of Pinter’s 1978 tale of a sexual triangle places its central characters under microscopic scrutiny, with no place to hide. Especially not from one another, as everybody is on everybody else’s mind, all the time. They are also all almost always fully visible to the audience.
This British version is the most merciless and empathic interpretation of this much performed work I’ve seen, and it keeps returning to my thoughts in piercing shards, like the remnants of a too-revealing dream. I had heard good things about this “Betrayal” when it debuted in London earlier this year, but I didn’t expect it to be one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever.
“Betrayal” was dismissed as lightweight by Pinter standards when it opened at the National Theater in London four decades ago, and hearing it described baldly, you can sort of understand why. The high concept pitch could be: “Love among the literati in London leads to disaster, when a publisher discovers his wife is having an affair with his best friend!”
True, the play had an unusual structure, with its reverse chronology. (It begins in 1977 and ends in 1968.) Early critics regarded this as an unnecessary and confusing gimmick. As for all that brittle, passion-concealing wit and straight-faced deception, wasn’t that the stuff of old-guard West End masters like Coward and Rattigan?
With subsequent productions and a first-rate film in 1983 — featuring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge — earlier naysayers began to perceive a creeping depth and delicacy in the work, which for me now ranks among Pinter’s finest. Curiously, despite three starry productions (the most recent led by Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz), “Betrayal” has never been done full justice on Broadway.
Mr. Lloyd’s interpretation balances surface elegance with an aching profundity, so that “Betrayal” becomes less about the anguish of love than of life itself. Specifically, I mean life as lived among people whom we can never truly know. That includes those closest to us; it also includes our own, elusive selves.
The three central characters here are Robert (Mr. Hiddleston); Emma (Ms. Ashton), his wife, a gallerist; and Jerry (Mr. Cox), a literary agent who was the best man at their wedding. Though the majority of the scenes are written for two, Mr. Lloyd keeps all his main characters onstage throughout. (He has also taken the liberty of introducing a fifth, silent character, in addition to the Italian waiter, played with gusto by Eddie Arnold, who appears in the original text.)
That means that when Jerry and Emma are in the rented, out-of-the-way flat where they meet in the afternoons, Robert is present as well — silent, unreacting and at some distance from the others, but undeniably there.
The hoary saying about three being a crowd comes to mind. But then sexual betrayal is inevitably crowded, isn’t it? The absent figure in the triangle is always there as an obstructive phantom, so that no interactions are unconditionally between two people. To borrow from Peter Nichols, whose “Passion Play” is my other favorite 20th-century drama about infidelity, adultery adulterates.
Mr. Lloyd’s “Betrayal” makes us feel this premise all the more acutely, by offering no distractions from the wounded and wounding souls at its center. As designed by the ever-ingenious Soutra Gilmour, and lighted with whispering subtlety by Jon Clark, the set remains a sort of modernist blank slate, like an abandoned contemporary showroom — or, perhaps, laboratory. Nor do the cast members ever change their clothes.
This means the focus is unflinchingly on how these friends and lovers behave, and on the distance between them (wonderfully underscored by a slyly, slowly moving stage). What they say is often as trivial as the most basic small talk. In Pinter, the greatest dramatic weight lies in what’s unspoken, in the darkness of unsorted feelings.
The three principal performers here allow us uncommon access to that darkness. They each achieve a state of heightened emotional transparency. And what we see, in their faces and bodies, and feel — in the less easily described energy that reaches across the footlights — is a harsh and beautiful muddle.
Pinter, like Chekhov, understood that reactions never come singly (though the shrilly opinionated discourse on social media today might lead you to think otherwise). The word “ambivalence” doesn’t begin to cover the thoughts in play in the first scene, when Jerry and Emma uneasily meet in a pub, two years after their affair has ended.
Emma has initiated this encounter. But as played with breathtakingly clear confusion by Ms. Ashton, she can’t explain why she did so. She’s looking for something she misplaced once, or let time carry off, but you know she can’t put her finger on what it is.
As played by the excellent Mr. Cox (best known here as television’s “Daredevil”), Jerry is less palpably unmoored; he would seem to have a thicker skin. And this shifts the center of “Betrayal” to its portrait of a marriage and its corrosive secrets.
As slender and sharp as a paring knife in his dark navy clothing, Mr. Hiddleston’s lacerating Robert seems to live in a state of existential mourning. He can be wittily combative, most memorably in a brilliantly staged restaurant scene with Jerry.
But you’re always aware of the regrets, the uneasiness, the sorrow behind the unbending facade. The scene in a Venice hotel room when he ever so gently, confronts Emma with evidence of her infidelity is almost too painful to watch. What you are witnessing is the conclusive collapse of a marriage’s fragile and necessary structure of illusions.
As a marquee name of films and tabloids, Mr. Hiddleston is the obvious draw here. But it’s the relatively little-known Ms. Ashton (who is also a playwright) who is the breakout star. And her deeply sensitive performance elicits a feminist subtext in “Betrayal.”
Power is a governing dynamic in Pinter. And I’ve seen productions in which Emma, as the only female onstage, emerges as a crushable odd-woman out in a boy’s club society. It’s telling that in this production she is the only major character who doesn’t wear a jacket or, more surprisingly, shoes.
She reads as more vulnerable because of this, but also as more humane and more open to figuring out just what has happened. Emma wants so much — professionally, romantically, domestically. And she’s harrowed by the realization that nothing she thought she had has ever been solidly hers.
More than ever in this version, which features a melancholy soundscape by Ben and Max Ringham, “Betrayal” becomes an elegy about time and memory, in which nothing stays fixed or certain. There’s new resonance to the continuing references to a joyful moment when Jerry threw Emma and Robert’s little girl into the air at a family gathering.
It’s mentioned in the very first scene, when Emma and Jerry meet again. The problem is they can’t agree on where the event happened, in his kitchen or hers.
Ms. Ashton’s Emma tries to conceal how much this small discrepancy upsets her, but her eyes are brimming. She thought she’d always at least have this memory intact — a vision of everyone, together, happy for a moment. It turns out she was mistaken.
‘Betrayal’ Broadway Review: Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox & Zawe Ashton In Pinter’s Affair To Remember
By Greg Evans
Secret love shacks, or love flats as the case may be, notwithstanding, no affair is an island built for two – there’s always at least a third person in the mix, typically considered the betrayed. In Jamie Lloyd’s masterful revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal – one is tempted to call it a reinvention, so deeply and definitely urgent is his take – three of the ever-shifting betrayers and betrayees occupy the stage at all times, one or another bearing silent witness as the other two enact an affair’s all-too-familiar scenes of lies, transgressions, excitement and the love that, at least fleetingly, prompts it all.
With a starry, pitch- and picture-perfect cast imported from the smash London staging – Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton – Lloyd’s staging of Pinter’s 1978 masterpiece, opening tonight at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Betrayal feels at once classic and altogether contemporary, a seamless weaving together of elements, from the fashionably spare stage and boho chic costumes to the director’s impeccably timed shuffling of characters from stage spot to stage spot, era to era, high mood to low.
Presented in reverse chronology – we meet the characters years after the end of the affair (though certainly not after its consequences) and follow them in scenes that scroll back to the first flirtation – Pinter’s play debuted five years before Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s backward musical Merrily We Roll Along, the play victorious over the structure’s challenges in ways the musical rarely accomplishes.
Lloyd’s staging, unhurried but never dawdling, glides through the emotional time tunnel as each scene, or, rather, each encounter of the characters in configurations of mostly two, occasionally three, flows with the certainty of logic. Or maybe it just seems logical in the hindsight built into the structure. Either way, each and every meeting of these characters is something of an “a-ha!” moment, leaving us convinced we’ve just been handed a crucial piece to a puzzle.
Our first meeting is with Jerry (Cox) and Emma (Ashton), whose seven-year affair (she’s married to Jerry’s longtime best friend Robert, played by Hiddleston) has been over for some years now. She’s called him, seemingly, out of the blue, and their wistful meet-up is loaded with the “You think of me sometimes?” and “I remember” aches and pains that lose none of their haunting durability for having been spoken.
Seated closely in two hard-backed chairs on the otherwise empty stage, Emma takes her time getting to the point: She wants Jerry to know that she has confessed all to Robert, just last night in fact. Hiddleston’s Robert silently watches the encounter just as we do.
Next comes the gobsmacked and guilt-ridden Jerry’s quickly arranged meeting with Robert, his intention apparently one of too-late confession and perhaps forgiveness-seeking.
Robert’s confused, though. Emma didn’t spill the beans last night, but rather four years ago. The betrayed husband has known everything, through all the increasingly infrequent boozy lunches that had the husband and his seemingly clueless best man continuing a friendship now revealed in all its shabby dishonesty. The betrayer has become the betrayed, and not for the last time.
As Betrayal unfolds in reverse time to the first stolen kiss between Jerry and Emma seven years prior, we learn perhaps more than we’d care to about these attractive, bookish and stylish intellectuals (Pinter based the play on his own real-life affair). Our empathy for the cuckolded Robert diminishes when he owns up to hitting Emma “once or twice” merely because he felt like giving her a good “bashing.” The affable Jerry seems appropriately conscience-stricken, right up to the early point when we discover his backstabbing intentions. Even Emma, so smart, witty and beautiful, won’t get out of here unscathed.
Played against simple, mottled gray panels on a near-bare stage (Jon Clark’s lighting design casts doppelgänger shadows, and Soutra Gilmour did the very effective scenic and costume designs, indicating no era, certainly not the ’60s-’70s period Pinter intended), Betrayal showcases three of the best dramatic performances currently on a New York stage. In their Broadway debuts, Hiddleston (The Avengers), Cox (Daredevil) and Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw) prove what London theatergoers have long known: Each holds the stage with a conviction that’s unbeatable. The compelling Hiddleston might get top billing, but his co-stars are no less commanding.
As the stage revolves and shuttles them to and fro, giving visual force to Pinter’s movement of these characters each through the others’ lives, Lloyd expertly focuses our attention on the performances. Aching, wistful and wounding, the director’s staging of Betrayal presents three friends and lovers trapped in an undoing of their own making, their inevitable self-destruction no less powerful for showing itself before the happier days.