New York City Theater
It may take two to tango but it obviously takes three for a triangle or, better, a ménage à trois. In director Jamie Lloyd’s insidious, corrosive, engrossing, icy revival of Harold Pinter’s provocative “Betrayal,” every twosome is silently observed by a third, often aggrieved, party. While Jerry, Robert’s best friend, is having a seven-year affair with Emma, Robert’s wife, it’s Robert himself who is the observant party, perhaps as eager to participate as he is to be a voyeur. That Emma and Jerry also observe actions they’re not directly involved in, is the mole-like undercurrent of the play. To see by the unseen informs this drama as it does much of Pinter’s work.
Often focusing on male conflicts interrupted by female venom, Pinter was here inspired by his own seven-year affair with a TV personality while both were married to others. In the play, most of which is told backwards, beginning with the affair’s after-effects and proceeding to its initiation, even British understatement cannot hide the very real hurts the three characters experience, or the widening circle of deceit and sadness.
Lies are told with an offhand insouciance. Emma, a gallery owner, is the Eve in this Garden, coming between Robert, a publisher, and Jerry, a literary agent, even though Jerry instigates the liaison. Robert seems more upset that he’s lost a squash partner in Jerry rather than the latter is sleeping with his wife. “Betrayal” is as much about licentious one-upmanship as anything else.
When Emma asks to watch the men play squash, Robert says, “We wouldn’t actually want a woman around, would we, Jerry? I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash.” Then, later, to emphasize the game’s warrior aspects, “The man who wins buys the lunch.”
Tom Hiddleston’s Robert makes an effort to bury his anger under polite smiles and actions. But the anger is palpable: watch how he attacks food. As Emma, Zawe Ashton’s enigmatic facial expressions belie her feelings. Words are weapons, silences are freighted, a tablecloth is a symbol, her bare feet presage, what?, her desire for vulnerability? As for Charlie Cox’s Jerry, he’s aggressive in a regressive way.
The three superb actors are frighteningly real in their contradictions: you want to shake them into consciousness. But you may not actually feel for them; in this production, with its minimal setting (a wall runs the length of upstage, two turntables slowly and mysteriously change perspectives, props are few), bare emotions are hidden.
Soutra Gilmour’s scenic and costume design smartly capture the play’s claustrophobia while Jon Clark’s lighting is alternately harsh and shadowy. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design and composition are uncannily intimidating.
Jamie Lloyd’s direction is both disturbing and seemingly asexual. He and Pinter speak in code that, instead of being straightforward or circular, exists elliptically.
--David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 11, 2019