Review of Betrayal, starring Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox & Zawe Ashton, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    September 5, 2019
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    Betrayal is a play of extreme intimacy. I think it is intended to be almost unbearable. The story of a marriage and a friendship disintegrating is based on Harold Pinter’s own affair with Joan Bakewell. His approach, however, is surgical and logical. He does what we all do when a life event alters our trajectory. We search for the source. “Fifteen years ago I spotted that person with the puppy and stopped to say hello. He turned out to be a doctor. Today I am in Venice sharing a gondola with his brother.” (Wow THAT is a good one!)

    Pinter begins in the present and follows the trail backwards to the beginning. In this case the present is 1977, and the beginning stretches back to 1968. Emma (Zawe Ashton) is married to Robert (Tom Hiddleston), and having an affair with Jerry (Charlie Cox). Actually the affair is over when we meet them, but their hearts are still tender. To add to the mix, Robert and Jerry are best friends and have been for years. Jerry was Best Man at Robert and Emma’s wedding.

    Pinter slides us back a year here, two years there, and occasionally moves laterally in time. This does get confusing, but once you give over to the time travel and focus on the undoing of these relationships it all seems to work. Jamie Lloyd’s directorial choices keeps everyone onstage at all times with the result that, although the focus may be on any two characters, the third is never out of mind. A kind of unspoken ghost. Soutra Gilmour’s set and Jon Clark’s lighting serve to confine and manipulate both actions and emotions allowing all the elements a seamless interplay.

    Hiddleston fairly crackles onstage. He is elegant and restrained and seems to be controlling the rage that runs in his veins. Cox is brilliant as the guy who got caught falling in love and decided to let it happen. Their scenes are packed with innuendo and the kind of lies that only intimacy can inspire. Their history is laid out like cards on a table, and in spite of their love for one another they circle round and round, never taking their eyes off one another, weapons within reach.

    As Emma, Ashton is a collection of mannerisms and not much more. I think her screen work might be very effective, but on stage she never appears to forget that we are watching her. There is a layer of pretence in her performance that keeps us from connecting with her. Indeed, I was left wondering what these two robust men saw in her. There was no “there” there.

    Still, it is enough that the men take the focus on this one. The tenderness and tragedy, while caused by Emma, belongs to this relationship. And, sad as it is, it is good to see two men invest their hearts and souls in one another. As to the outcome? Once the arc of the story has been revealed, Pinter takes his leave of the trio. How will they recover from the layers of betrayals – who knows? That these three will always be connected in spite of, and perhaps because of, the betrayals – that is certain. 

    Pinter is spare in the number of words he chooses. His precision is masterful. Underneath each carefully chosen word are layers upon layers of the unspoken thoughts that cling like microfibers. What is said is on the surface. What is meant lies beneath. Pinter manages to give us both in equal measure. This production at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre allows his writing to shine and hit us in places we thought we had hidden safely away.

    (Photo by Marc Brenner)

    "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."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Director Jamie Lloyd’s production, the play’s third Broadway revival in 18 years, is capably acted but spare, gray and chilly."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Your eyes are glued to the actors, who fill their Pinter pauses with fierce desire and longing — especially when standing several feet apart. Hiddleston supplies most of the play’s danger with his forceful presence, while its heart comes from a deep-feeling Ashton. Meanwhile, Cox is a guy plenty of audience members would gladly leave their husbands for."
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "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."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "How can such a cool play make us sweat? Chalk it up to the incredible heat generated by the starry cast of Broadway’s latest Betrayal, featuring Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere to hide. Certainly not in the language, which is so famously spare that even the pauses pulse with unspoken emotion and hidden meaning. And definitely not in the staging, which is the essence of minimalism."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety