There are “serious” theatre people, whether they admire Harold Pinter or not, who will judge this play against some ideal of a Harold Pinter project. Are the pauses long enough? Are the sub-textual multiple levels of Betrayal properly conveyed? Is it up to snuff. And then there are the visceral audience members; those who desire to be entertained and moved by the story on stage. For these audience members, Betrayal won’t fully explain what all the fuss is about.
Betrayal opens with a pair of ex-lovers, Emma and Jerry, meeting years after their affair ended. Emma’s marriage to her husband Robert has just ended, and she wants to warn Jerry that she has admitted to their long term, but now long over affair. Emma knows it is important to warn him, since Robert and Jerry have been friends since before Robert and Emma’s marriage. For the Pinter-ites among us, this scene describes the triple Betrayal immediately that plays out in the show. Emma has betrayed her husband for years. Jerry has betrayed his best friend for years. And now Emma has betrayed the unspoken trust of their mutual lie.
It is a superbly acted scene with Rachel Weisz as Emma and Rafe Spall as Jerry. The two sit isolated in a pub and their nervous familiarity defines the uncomfortableness that comes with expired intimacy.
The play then moves to a meeting between Jerry and Robert, an equally excellent Daniel Craig, where it is revealed that Emma actually told Robert about the affair years ago. Jerry now feels doubly a fool, first carrying on a clandestine affair that wasn’t very clandestine and secondly believing a lie told by his ex-paramour with no other reason than to make him look foolish to his friend. For the non-Pinter-ites among us, this reserved British embarrassment is what drives the rest of the play.
|Daniel Craig & Rachel Wiesz as the married couple at the heart of Betrayal
The play runs in reverse chronological order, revealing how the affair fell apart, how Robert found out about the affair and how the whole thing started. It might be argued that Emma was a pawn in a male dominance game between these two men, but Rachel Weisz’ Emma is too strong a character for that. If that was ever the motivation for either man, Emma had long since coopted the power herself. But Ms. Weisz doesn’t portray Emma as some emotionally powerful sex kitten. Quite the opposite, Rachel’s Emma is powerful because she is emotional, open without being needy and loving without the societal norms that most people have.
Daniel Craig’s Robert is a cuckold who isn’t defined by the deception. Robert is a publisher that doesn’t particularly like modern prose, an analogy for the husband who doesn’t particularly like marriage. He is aloof from his business and seemingly aloof from his wife’s infidelities. It is a difficult role to pull off without being bitter, yet still capable of emotion. Mr. Craig does an excellent job of it. Robert obviously loved his wife and was great friends with Jerry. If he still is, or if it is just habit is hard to read, as it should be. Mr. Craig grace under pressure is wonderful – although that 1970’s hair is so dreadful as to be distracting.
Rafe Spall is excellent as Jerry. Seemingly driving the action, he has an oblivious loving wife and family (unseen), a beautiful lover and a best friend / business associate that knows nothing. Jerry is living the playboy life. As it unfolds that he has disappointed his lover and hasn’t been fooling his best friend, his bearings are lost. The bewildered result is well earned, as revealed through the play.
So there you have it. For the Pinter-ites, we have an exquisitely acted treatise on the upper classes’ sexual politics. For your average theatergoer we have a very well acted, but ultimately dry play about sexual betrayal that somehow doesn’t seem to register with these characters emotionally. For most of us, it is a curiously distant play on a subject that should be immediate.
Mike Nichols does an admirable job directing the show to make it accessible to all. Many of the long, lingering pauses and unsaid questions are handled speedily, without any loss of meaning or ambivalence. Betrayal is a speedy 90 minutes, leaving the audience questioning, as it should.
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall