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.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd — and acted with surgical precision by Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox — this stripped-down revival of Pinter’s 1978 tale of a sexual triangle places its central characters under microscopic scrutiny, with no place to hide. Especially not from one another, as everybody is on everybody else’s mind, all the time. They are also all almost always fully visible to the audience.
This British version is the most merciless and empathic interpretation of this much performed work I’ve seen, and it keeps returning to my thoughts in piercing shards, like the remnants of a too-revealing dream. I had heard good things about this “Betrayal” when it debuted in London earlier this year, but I didn’t expect it to be one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever.
“Betrayal” was dismissed as lightweight by Pinter standards when it opened at the National Theater in London four decades ago, and hearing it described baldly, you can sort of understand why. The high concept pitch could be: “Love among the literati in London leads to disaster, when a publisher discovers his wife is having an affair with his best friend!”
True, the play had an unusual structure, with its reverse chronology. (It begins in 1977 and ends in 1968.) Early critics regarded this as an unnecessary and confusing gimmick. As for all that brittle, passion-concealing wit and straight-faced deception, wasn’t that the stuff of old-guard West End masters like Coward and Rattigan?
With subsequent productions and a first-rate film in 1983 — featuring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge — earlier naysayers began to perceive a creeping depth and delicacy in the work, which for me now ranks among Pinter’s finest. Curiously, despite three starry productions (the most recent led by Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz), “Betrayal” has never been done full justice on Broadway.
Mr. Lloyd’s interpretation balances surface elegance with an aching profundity, so that “Betrayal” becomes less about the anguish of love than of life itself. Specifically, I mean life as lived among people whom we can never truly know. That includes those closest to us; it also includes our own, elusive selves.
The three central characters here are Robert (Mr. Hiddleston); Emma (Ms. Ashton), his wife, a gallerist; and Jerry (Mr. Cox), a literary agent who was the best man at their wedding. Though the majority of the scenes are written for two, Mr. Lloyd keeps all his main characters onstage throughout. (He has also taken the liberty of introducing a fifth, silent character, in addition to the Italian waiter, played with gusto by Eddie Arnold, who appears in the original text.)
That means that when Jerry and Emma are in the rented, out-of-the-way flat where they meet in the afternoons, Robert is present as well — silent, unreacting and at some distance from the others, but undeniably there.
The hoary saying about three being a crowd comes to mind. But then sexual betrayal is inevitably crowded, isn’t it? The absent figure in the triangle is always there as an obstructive phantom, so that no interactions are unconditionally between two people. To borrow from Peter Nichols, whose “Passion Play” is my other favorite 20th-century drama about infidelity, adultery adulterates.
Mr. Lloyd’s “Betrayal” makes us feel this premise all the more acutely, by offering no distractions from the wounded and wounding souls at it center. As designed by the ever-ingenious Soutra Gilmour, and lighted with whispering subtlety by Jon Clark, the set remains a sort of modernist blank slate, like an abandoned contemporary showroom — or, perhaps, laboratory. Nor do the cast members ever change their clothes.
This means the focus is unflinchingly on how these friends and lovers behave, and on the distance between them (wonderfully underscored by a slyly, slowly moving stage). What they say is often as trivial as the most basic small talk. In Pinter, the greatest dramatic weight lies in what’s unspoken, in the darkness of unsorted feelings.
The three principal performers here allow us uncommon access to that darkness. They each achieve a state of heightened emotional transparency. And what we see, in their faces and bodies, and feel — in the less easily described energy that reaches across the footlights — is a harsh and beautiful muddle.
Pinter, like Chekhov, understood that reactions never come singly (though the shrilly opinionated discourse on social media today might lead you to think otherwise). The word “ambivalence” doesn’t begin to cover the thoughts in play in the first scene, when Jerry and Emma uneasily meet in a pub, two years after their affair has ended.
Emma has initiated this encounter. But as played with breathtakingly clear confusion by Ms. Ashton, she can’t explain why she did so. She’s looking for something she misplaced once, or let time carry off, but you know she can’t put her finger on what it is.
As played by the excellent Mr. Cox (best known here as television’s “Daredevil”), Jerry is less palpably unmoored; he would seem to have a thicker skin. And this shifts the center of “Betrayal” to its portrait of a marriage and its corrosive secrets.
As slender and sharp as a paring knife in his dark navy clothing, Mr. Hiddleston’s lacerating Robert seems to live in a state of existential mourning. He can be wittily combative, most memorably in a brilliantly staged restaurant scene with Jerry.
But you’re always aware of the regrets, the uneasiness, the sorrow behind the unbending facade. The scene in a Venice hotel room when he ever so gently, confronts Emma with evidence of her infidelity is almost too painful to watch. What you are witnessing is the conclusive collapse of a marriage’s fragile and necessary structure of illusions.
As a marquee name of films and tabloids, Mr. Hiddleston is the obvious draw here. But it’s the relatively little-known Ms. Ashton (who is also a playwright) who is the breakout star. And her deeply sensitive performance elicits a feminist subtext in “Betrayal.”
Power is a governing dynamic in Pinter. And I’ve seen productions in which Emma, as the only female onstage, emerges as a crushable odd-woman out in a boy’s club society. It’s telling that in this production she is the only major character who doesn’t wear a jacket or, more surprisingly, shoes.
She reads as more vulnerable because of this, but also as more humane and more open to figuring out just what has happened. Emma wants so much — professionally, romantically, domestically. And she’s harrowed by the realization that nothing she thought she had has ever been solidly hers.
More than ever in this version, which features a melancholy soundscape by Ben and Max Ringham, “Betrayal” becomes an elegy about time and memory, in which nothing stays fixed or certain. There’s new resonance to the continuing references to a joyful moment when Jerry threw Emma and Robert’s little girl into the air at a family gathering.
It’s mentioned in the very first scene, when Emma and Jerry meet again. The problem is they can’t agree on where the event happened, in his kitchen or hers.
Ms. Ashton’s Emma tries to conceal how much this small discrepancy upsets her, but her eyes are brimming. She thought she’d always at least have this memory intact — a vision of everyone, together, happy for a moment. It turns out she was mistaken.
Tickets Through Dec. 8 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, betrayalonbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes