Confession time! I’ve never liked Pinter. I know everyone loves his spikey dialogue and infamous pauses but I’ve just really never been able to get on with his plays at all. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve seen plenty but they never do a great deal for me and one infamous visit to see No Man’s Land with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on Broadway resulted in the usher telling me afterwards how deeply jealous he was that I’d managed to sleep through half of it. Overall as playwrights go I’ve always found his work more than a little chilly. But then they announced Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton for Jamie Lloyd’s new production of Betrayal and with a line up like that how could I resist? Charlie Cox is in one of my favourite films of all time (Stardust) and was fantastic as Matt Murdock in the sadly cancelled Daredevil. Tom Hiddleston is a huge favourite of mine. His muscular, brutal turn in Coriolanus was captivating and he was a really superb Hamlet. In the highly unlikely event that you’re following me and don’t know his back catalogue off by heart then apart from Loki I would highly recommend his turns in Crimson Peak, High Rise and Only Lovers Left Alive. Seeing him back on stage is exciting and it’s lovely to see a young audience flocking to see him.
Betrayal is a deceptively simple piece. It tells the tale of Emma (Zawe Ashton) who is married to Robert (Tom Hiddleston) and who for years had an affair with his best friend Jerry (Charlie Cox). We start at the end. Emma and Robert’s marriage is all but over, Emma is having an affair with a novelist and Emma and Jerry haven’t seen each other for two years. The play then follows a reverse chronology showing Emma & Jerry happy together, Robert finding out and Emma and Jerry’s initial flirtation.
These are not likeable characters no matter how attractive their outward appearance may be. Robert may be the wronged party but we’re told early on that he has also been cheating on Emma for years and he’s a wife beater to boot, something he seems utterly unrepentant about. Jerry cheated on his wife for years (for added sympathy she’s a nurse) with the wife of his best friend & yet seems more concerned at the potential loss of his friendship with Robert than he is the feelings of the women in his life. Emma falls remarkably easily for Jerry’s drunken overtures and leaps very happily into a relationship with him. This central trio betray each other and themselves repeatedly with a seeming lack of concern for the consequences. They’re not nice people and yet in the hands of this supremely talented cast you can’t help but feel for them.
The cast has absolutely nowhere to hide in Jamie Lloyd’s elegant, stripped back production. The set is a simple white box whose walls come claustrophobically crashing in as Robert discovers the truth of Emma’s affair. At times the actors are pushed to the very precipice of the stage leaving them with nowhere to go. There’s a revolve which doesn’t add much to the equation and a mildly dubious use of a child as a prop but simplicity is key with Lloyd ensuring your focus is never anywhere but the actors. The lighting is a harsh white fill that causes the actors to cast shadows where they stand. These fall on the other players causing them constantly to be covered in someone else’s shadow. The actors never leave the stage. Whenever one isn’t needed (the play is a series of vignettes showcasing Emma and Robert, Emma and Jerry and Jerry and Robert) they stand at the back of the stage statue still. If you took a photo of the stage at any point during the 90 minute run time it would look like a painting. Never has Tom Hiddleston looked more like a raven than when he is stood, gaunt, black clad and stock still, a silent witness to Emma and Jerry’s Betrayal.
The acting from all three leads is exquisitely subtle. So subtle in fact that the barest of micro expressions can be devastating. Zawe Ashton gains our sympathies as Emma, a character without a great deal of interior on the page. As I grow older I have more empathy for characters that I may have judged more harshly in my youth. Emma is not the perfect wife but Ashton brings out her vulnerability and perfectly captures the agonies of someone who just desperately wants something more. She loves Robert but not nearly enough. But she still shakes like a leaf at the prospect of having to confess her affair. She loves Jerry but he simply doesn’t love her enough to change his life for her. There is this expression of distress which flashes across her face, lightening fast, every time Jerry fails to remember a pertinent memory from their affair. Her heartbreak when she realises that what she had with Jerry has withered is agonising (as he moans constantly about how she’s too busy while she points out devastated that she’s there because she has the afternoon off as she does every week – he’s just not prepared to make time for her.)
Charlie Cox is perfectly suited to Pinter’s dialogue and pauses and fully inhabits Jerry who is a rather contradictory soul who seems to truly love Emma and yet seems more panicked at the possibility of losing his friendship with Robert. He wants, oh he wants, but not quite enough to upend his life and make an actual change. He seems just as in love with Robert as Emma and is bewildered at Robert’s matter of factness when he flatly confesses that “he couldn’t give a shit about any of this” when a desperate Jerry tries to make amends.
Hiddleston for his part has never been better. Never has that beaming smile seemed more like a shark’s as he circles Jerry at the beginning, aware of the depths of his betrayal and hiding his anger, pain and simmering resentment behind a cold, cold grin and a blaze attitude. More of an audition for James Bond than The Night Manager ever was. Later he is a picture of utter devastation, weeping almost silently when a trembling Emma confesses her affair to him. He has a fine line in angry eating when aware of the affair but maintaining appearances he has a painful lunch with Jerry where he can barely contain his rage. He downs the best part of two bottles of wine in 5 minutes and furiously demolishes a plate of melon while fondly reminiscing of the day he spent alone (after he was aware of Emma’s betrayal) in Italy. It’s a perfectly calibrated performance, Robert is rage and devastation incarnate but I don’t think he once even raises his voice.
Betrayal is a bare bones, emotionally raw look at love and relationships with superb performances from its central trio of actors.
Betrayal is playing now at the Pinter Theatre. It’s pretty heavily sold but best availability towards the end of the run.