On Broadway, ‘Betrayal’ Is the Only Constant of Life

The hard elegance of the performances -- especially Tom Hiddleston, in his Broadway debut -- are a potent factor in the overwhelming success of this revival.

Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Fox and Zawe Ashton in "Betrayal." Photo: Marc Brenner.

In director Jamie Lloyd’s perfectly brilliant revival of Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, now on Broadway for the fourth time, all the playwright’s vaunted, painstakingly indicated pauses are honored. Lloyd may even have added a few for good measure. If so, good on him for respectfully respecting to Pinter’s diligent recording of interstices of conversation made by the characters.

In Betrayal, they are a married couple, Robert (Tom Hiddleston) and Emma (Zawe Ashton), and Jerry (Charlie Cox), Robert’s best friend, who, for most of the intermissionless, 90-minute, nine-scene play is having an affair with Emma. The scenes, proceeding backwards in time, begin when Emma and Jerry meet in a bar two years after their five-year fling ended.

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The major strength of Pinter turning back the clock is giving the audience information that the characters don’t have. For instance — spoiler ahead — we know that Robert was aware of the Emma-Jerry liaison long before Jerry learns what Robert knows. Meaning that more than one betrayal transpires in this three-way.

And as Lloyd stresses the numerous pauses, he also distills the play to its essence. As the lights rise on Soutra Gilmour’s spare set — a paneled grey wall — Robert, Emma and Jerry solemnly face the audience. Somber mood established, Emma and Jerry move the two chairs that are virtually the only other furnishings and begin their melancholy reminiscence.

Pointedly, Robert does not leave the stage. He stands against the wall, moving only a few steps during the Emma-Jerry exchange, usually whenever his name is mentioned. Here, Lloyd immediately establishes his conceit: that no matter when two of Pinter’s characters converse, the third character is always quietly present; that absent figures significant in our lives are always somehow present in our consciences.

Lloyd later employs a turntable to remind us that all three figures are constantly in each other’s purviews. Still later, the director activates a turntable within the larger turntable as a metaphor for how frequently people in various relationships might travel along clockwise and counterclockwise paths. (Lighting designer Jon Clark, and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design and original music also contribute to the thickening atmosphere.)

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Lloyd’s genius is, needless to say, in service to Pinter’s. The playwright finds copious ways to fill out the seven years covered, in reverse, in the play, including the final confrontation when what transpired between Emmy and Jerry is inexorably over. (Indeed, it’s revealed that Emma was dallying again, in an ironic twist that I’ll omit here.) Between the first and sequences (or is it the last and first sequences?), Emma and Jerry take a flat in London’s far-flung Kilburn area, where they’re blissful through clandestine afternoons, then careless about being clandestine. There are reported trips to Italy at a time when a letter sent to American Express causes a flareup. There’s a drop-in on the slightly jarred Robert-Jerry friendship.

The hard elegance of the performances are a potent factor in the overwhelming success of this revival. Heartthrob Hiddleston, in his Broadway bow, has a way of transmitting inner edginess that makes him hard not to watch. Ashton, with swinging shoulder-length black hair, has a superb butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth effect. Cox projects the quality of a seemingly easygoing man harboring much more than he’s exhibiting. Eddie Arnold, in the brief role of a cheerful Italian waiter, confirms the old adage about there being no small roles, only small actors. A fifth character, about which no more will be revealed, also shows up under Lloyd’s instigation.

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Pinter — whose political views were well-known and certainly expressed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech — concentrates his play on the personal. He’s intrigued by the dodgy relationships between and among family and friends, and along those lines, none of his plays are as personal as Betrayal. It might be considered a questionable indulgence, too, since it his thinly veiled, fictionalized account of the five-year affair he had with Joan Bakewell, now Baroness Bakewell, who was then married to TV producer and Pinter best friend Michael Bakewell. Perhaps Pinter needed to get the episode off his chest.

By the way, Pinter closely examines the Robert-Emma-Jerry interplay (pun more or less intended), and does refer to Robert and Emma’s daughter, Charlotte. Their effect of these badly acting adults on Charlotte isn’t detailed, but since Pinter has gone so self-reflective, he almost invites thoughts of Daniel, the son he had and was raising with actress Vivien Merchant while he went slipping around with Bakewell. Daniel eventually cut off ties with his father, and changed his surname to his maternal grandmother’s — Brand. So perhaps the ultimate Betrayal query becomes this: In life, is betrayal the only constant?