Since 2011, in place of the Comedy Theatre, the Londoner West End district was enriched by the newly opened Harold Pinter Theatre. Named after the famous playwright who had penned works like The Homecoming, The Room, No Man’s Land or Moonlight, the theatre was supposed to be home to comedies and dramas alike.
In 2018, ten years after the writer’s passing, the theatre announced a season of ‘Pinter At The Pinter’ in which all of Pinter’s one-act-plays were revived over the months of September and October, directed by Jamie Lloyd, Lia Williams, Patrick Marber and Lyndsey Turner. The final installment of the season is Pinter’s play Betrayal, which is currently in its 12-week-run which started on March 5. The play focuses on the tale of a marriage and an ex-marital affair throughout a period of time and stars Tom Hiddleston (most famous for his role of Loki in the Marvel movies, but also his work on stage like ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘Hamlet’), Charlie Cox (known for ‘Daredevil’) and Zawe Ashton (who recently starred in the Netflix film ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’).
If I had to pick two words to describe this play, they would be impactful and simplistic. The staging of the play is minimal, as is the number of characters, providing unlimited space and room to display the emotions and conflicts in the story.
While the title of the play already gives away the most central theme, this story is also one of growth. It shows characters growing closer and apart, growing as people themselves and outgrowing their situations. In the first scene, we meet Emma (played by Zawe Ashton) and Jerry (played by Charlie Cox). The chemistry between the actors was apparent from the start, convincingly displayed with subtle cues, laughs and pauses which were clearly filled with a shared past. Moreover, this scene shows the special narrative of the play, which starts with the first meeting of two former lovers, who had broken up several years before this scene takes place and then progresses further and further into their relationship and the marriage(s) they are betraying. This narrative technique is engaging for the audience, because they can only guess the personal history from subtle hints, and from shared memories in the conversation. They don’t have an emotional connection to the characters yet, but as the play continues and we learn more about the characters and their motivations, we as spectators are left constantly guessing our own ideas and preconceptions about the story developing on stage in front of us. Both Ashton and Cox manage to show two people who were at some point clearly in love with each other, who have grown apart and are now left with nothing to talk about but their shared past and memories. They’re always tip-toeing along the line of revealing too much hurt over a past love or an understanding about how they both betrayed their husband and best friend respectively for years.
Emma’s husband, Robert, is played by Tom Hiddleston and spends the first scene in the background, emphasizing the looming conscience of both characters reminiscing about their past affair. In the following scene, we see Robert and Jerry talking about the affair, while Robert remains casual and seemingly uncaring. Jerry is clearly upset about the fact that Robert had known about the affair for years and never confronted him about it. As mentioned before, in this scene one could take Robert’s nonchalance as arrogance, or maybe even as a defense mechanism, but as the story develops, we learn about not only Robert having several affairs over the years, but also the way he has dealt with his wife’s betrayal.
Little by little, we learn more about the way the affair ended, maintained and started. All of the little scenes offer more and more insight into the character’s motivations, the stage-design with its revolving floor and quick changes resembling a ticking clock making the progression easy to follow and adding to the effect of an unfolding flower of a story.
Hiddleston’s approach to the role is not playing a jilted lover, or a husband with a bruised ego, he shows actual hurt covered up by overcompensation, either with casualness or with drinking, laughing and talking too much. He manages to portray the journey of a husband clearly devoted to his wife, who shows signs of mistrust, hides his pain and accepts his faith all in the course of a couple of scenes. Watching him go from tender moments with his wife and later, daughter, to seeing him enraged, hurt and lashing out, is a true treat.
His work is matched by the other two actors in the play on every level, especially Zawe Ashton, who shows a wide range while portraying the character of Emma. We see her change demeanour, speech and facial expressions completely depending on the scene and her scene partner. She manages to portray Emma’s reasons for actually committing to the affair, because she shows the audience the different sides of her character brought out by the two different men in her life. She accomplishes that sometimes only with subtle movements, tilting her head a certain way or one touch to her partner’s arm. Throughout the play, the audience can try to understand the reasons behind her actions, while still seeing her vulnerable side or the mistakes she has made.
Charlie Cox’s way of playing Jerry has certainly shown me a new way of seeing him as an actor. I had not previously seen Cox on stage and was thoroughly impressed with his work in this play. In stories about affairs or betrayal, we as an audience have a tendency to blame it on one or both parties involved (“Her husband got bored of her because she didn’t make an effort!”, “He/she seduced her/him!”), but not in this play. The audience sympathizes with all parties involved, mostly due to the fact that all characters are well-rounded and portrayed in such a way that everyone gets a chance to observe and understand them as they tell the story of their “betrayal”. In the beginning, Jerry does seem a bit cocky, teasing Emma and making not-so-subtle hints at their intimate past. Cox flirts, laughs, but still shows his own affection towards his past lover, his hurt feelings and broken heart. Over the play, he manages to show Jerry’s own insecurities, his bond with Robert and Emma and the conflict that results from both of these relationships.
Finally, the play closes with a scene of the night were Jerry first confesses his feelings for Emma. With the background story the play provided, this scene gains a tremendous impact, because the audience witnesses three people in a triangle of love and affection towards one another, captivated by passion, impulse and trust. This play doesn’t need a dramatic climax, because the end of the play takes us right back to the beginning, telling a tale of love more than one of betrayal.
If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend committing to this unique theatre experience. It has humor, a love story and a story of a breaking friendship being mended and broken again and on top of that a brilliant cast of actors who fuel each other in their strong performances.
‘Betrayal’ has recently been extended to run until June 8, tickets can be bought here.