- Betrayal by Harold Pinter
It may seem a truism to remark that Harold Pinter is all about the pause, the silence, and the unsaid. When the Broadway revival of Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal, directed by Mike Nichols, did away with the pauses and silences indicated in the text, the final product was an unfamiliar kind of Pinter. Nichols’s fast-paced and glamorous staging of Betrayal turned the playwright’s undertow of erotic tension and menace into an overt display of passion and aggression. This lack of restraint in the characters’ emotions was echoed in the production design that pulled all the stops to deliver the love-triangle story in a glossy, star-studded package. While this Betrayal might not have been the delicate play of melancholy regret one expects, it lay bare the latent relationship between art and money that the characters negotiate and how they eventually sell out.
On the surface, Betrayal tells a banal story of the friendship between Robert and Jerry, and of the affair between Jerry and Robert’s wife Emma, in reverse chronology, from 1977 to 1968. Indeed, this is how the early London theatre critics saw the play when it premiered—as a petty tale of adultery. Since then, Betrayal has been reconsidered as a masterpiece of Pinter’s “memory period,” alongside Landscape (1968), Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975), and Family Voices (1981)—works that explore the comic and dolorous vagaries of human memory and the haunting persistence of the past in the present.
Productions that focus on subtlety and insinuation, like Ian Rickson’s 2011 superb London production starring Kristin Scott Thomas, accentuate the characters’ penchant for poetry and wit. Emma, Robert, and Jerry are not just lovers, but lovers of language. Thus the games they play are not merely erotic but linguistic, for language and seduction are intimately connected in Pinter. Well-versed in modern prose, the trio knows that words and silence have many meanings. They play with one another, and part of the pleasure of watching such a cerebral cat-and-mouse game is that the audience often does not know how much a character knows at a given moment. In such subtle interpretations, the characters tend to appear as sensitive souls in search of intimacy and solace. Their silences seem charged with inner thoughts. Yet, while Pinter cultivates ambiguity on the level of language, he makes sure to emphasize his characters’ occupations. Jerry is a literary agent; Robert is a publisher; Emma is a gallerist. They are creative people though deeply enmeshed in the commercial side of art, as we hear them simultaneously both skewer and support Casey—the novelist who never appears onstage, but who is the bread and butter of their incomes. Whether intentionally or not, Nichols’s blockbuster Betrayal highlighted this shady side of the characters’ involvement with the arts.
Performed with no intermission, this was a speedy and libidinous ninety-minute Betrayal that sought to seduce the audience with racy scenes between celebrity co-stars and with impressive floating sets designed by Ian MacNeil. The ensemble of real-life spouses Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz and West End veteran Rafe Spall was bound to make a splash, and it did. The show set a box-office record at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in its first week of previews, prompting the New York Times to bemoan that the “astronomical ticket prices” for Betrayal were out of reach for general theatregoers. The floodlights of Broadway inadvertently brought to light the unflattering features of the characters—their brutality and philistinism.
Nichols was clearly uninterested in intimation or understatement. In his energetic version, the openly temperamental characters neither equivocate nor do they veil their motivations. A telling instance took place in scene 7 when Robert and Jerry dine at a restaurant in the summer of 1973. Robert, played by Craig with Neanderthal ferocity, turns to Jerry and says: “You know what you and Emma have in common? You love literature. I mean you love modern prose literature, I mean you love the new...