Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 5, 2019
Betrayal by Harold Pinter. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Scenic and costume design by Soutra Gilmour. Lighting design by Jon Clark. Sound design and composition by Ben & Max Ringham. Cast: Eddie Arnold, Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox, and Tom Hiddleston.
What I thought of while watching Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox performing this intricate and well-executed pas de trois was a quote, not from Pinter but from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that would seem to sum up the situation nicely: "Musical beds is the faculty sport around here." What this means, in the context of both plays, is that it's perfectly fine for the characters to engage in the odd tryst now and then, but, really, there are limits. Secrets must remain under wraps, and appearances must be kept up. In Pinter's world, at least, "betrayal" occurs when these strictures are violated.
Betrayal unfolds in a series of backwards-in-time scenes covering the decade from 1977-1968. It presents a pattern of relatively effortless infidelity and deceit that circumscribe the lives of Robert (Mr. Hiddleston), his wife Emma (Ms. Ashton), and Emma's lover Jerry (Mr. Cox), who also is Robert's closest friend. And if you are inclined to feel sorry for Robert, rest assured he's not exactly the innocent and unknowing victim here. Nor are the three miscreants the only ones affected. Though unseen, we know enough about Jerry's wife Judith and clients of both men (Jerry is a literary agent; Robert is a publisher), to see where they fit into the well-regulated social milieu they all inhabit. The rules of engagement apply to one and all. Save your sympathy for the children.
Director Jamie Lloyd recently came off heading up a season of Pinter plays in London, culminating in this production of Betrayal. In its Broadway incarnation, everything has been polished to a sheen, and Pinter's language, including his well-known weighty pauses, garners our full attention. If you take the "musical beds" analogy from Edward Albee and make it "musical chairs," you'll get an idea of how cleverly everything is staged. Soutra Gilmour's imaginative set design makes splendid use of turntables, a couple of chairs and, occasionally, a small table to establish and reconfigure the changing relationships among the characters over time.
In less experienced hands, Pinter can all too easily come up as knotty and impenetrable, intellectual and emotionally dry. While the dialog in Betrayal occasionally threatens to veer in this direction, the performers speak with great clarity, and the generally repressed emotions of their characters surface through body language, gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions that mostly and appropriately only we in the audience can discern. As an added and smartly-conceived touch, all three remain on stage at all times, even if only two are interacting in any given scene; their lives are so intertwined, how could it be otherwise?
Betrayal was last seen on Broadway in the fall of 2013. That mounting, directed by Mike Nichols, was a show-offy star turn for the big name married couple of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as Robert and Emma (Rafe Spall was on board as Jerry). It was a very physical event with oversize performances and a more-or-less traditional set design. That was the polar opposite of what you will get with this production, which, along with the beautifully concise and harmonious performances, uses Jon Clark's lighting design, and Ben and Max Ringham's sound design and underscoring to provide the entire enterprise with its dreamlike or memory quality that works most effectively. All told, this is a first-rate presentation, spare perhaps in size but hardly in scope.