It may not be typical to come out of a Pinter play and have Sam Shepard on your mind. But it was Shepard—the recently deceased chronicler of a mythical but still resonant American West, whose plays used a violent poetry and choreography to tell dark, personal stories that seemed somehow to include everyone: cowboys and city people, fathers and their sons, and anybody who has ever loved not wisely but with foreboding, explosive consequences—I invoked to my companion as we exited the Jacobs Theater on 45th Street, where we had just been fortunate to witness director Jamie Lloyd’s new, bareboned revival of Pinter’s 1978 classic Betrayal.
This Betrayal, by way of London’s West End, manages to be both stark and sumptuous at the same time. When Emma (Zawe Ashton) calls attention to “the crockery and the curtains and the bedspread and everything” in the flat she’s been using to meet her lover and betray her husband, your attention makes do with the three chairs and long rectangular pastel panel that forms the back wall of the stage. This is the flat. This is the “everything.” Of course, with Pinter, you don’t need much else. Pinter’s entire world—a very specific, tonal presentation of manners and mischief—lives in and between the lines of his plays.
Which was what made me think of Shepard. Shepard wrote loud, tangled, bruising tales in which characters seemed to be announcing themselves every chance they got—if only because the opportunities to talk, or sing, or get up in the face of somebody, was as revealing and aspirational to them as it was to us. In the end, his plays seemed to be about himself. And in mining the depths of his own being, he told stories that ended up as landscape portraits of his country. America was his true subject. But he knew he would only get there through the raiding of his own psyche.
Pinter has no such aims. His stories involve only a very few people at a time, characters who are probably not recognizable to most Americans. And not just because they are quintessentially British. But because the world they inhabit is so narrow, so conscripted, that the critical truths they learn about themselves and present to others are only ever hinted at: in the discreet use of very specific words, phrases, or lines—or in the exquisitely calibrated absence of them. This is strange, quiet music to Americans, and though I’ve been reading and watching Pinter all of my life, his work was wonderfully, chaotically, distancing and alien to this American all over again during my viewing of Betrayal.
Lloyd’s elegant contribution to Betrayal is to not surround it with a detailed, realistic environmental backdrop—as featured in, say, the 1983 movie, starring Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley—but to create, in scenic design (Soutra Gilmour), sound (Ben & Max Ringham), and choreography, a kind of supportive, flexible infrastructure in which to house the playwright’s words and actions. In this production, the three main characters are on stage mostly all the time. Depending on their designated role in individual scenes, they either incrementally inch closer to the action or away from it. When not technically part of a scene, they devolve into the overall visual tableaux. Like unseen ghosts, they circle, hover, linger; their movements are precise, measured, and artful.
The means of production seem equally to comment on the play’s thematic considerations: the stage floor features a turntable on which the characters can be rotated in or out of scenes, lending their movements an air of predestination. And Jon Clark’s lighting design creates shadows and bathes rooms in light not only according to mood but character appearances, disappearances, and subtle maneuverings into the foreground or background.
Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox are perfectly cast as Emma’s husband and lover, respectfully. And Zawe Ashton’s astonishing Emma might be a reasonable conjecture for why the play’s time period has been moved up to the present. (The script starts in 1977 and works famously backward.) Ashton’s Emma seems so effortlessly of our time that she similarly seems to embody all of time, in the way that you can’t get a firm sense of what it means to be contemporary without having an equally solid grasp of the past. You can imagine Emma being both artfully competent with a cellphone and also leaving them all behind on the tube as she exits lost in a book or contemplation of a classic artwork. Her performance is hypnotic, gracious and graceful; it moors both production and play. In fact, this delectable realization of one of Pinter’s great, lasting plays was almost enough for me to eschew those wild colonial savages writing about the new frontier for the gorgeous, if slightly forbidding, comforts of the motherland.
Betrayal. By Harold Pinter. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. A Jamie Lloyd Company production at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 W. 45 St. With Tom Hiddleston (Robert), Emma (Zawe Ashton), Charlie Cox (Jerry), Eddie Arnold (Waiter). Scenic design: Soutra Gilmour. Lighting Design: Jon Clark. Sound Design & Composition: Ben & Max Ringham. Tickets are $25.00 – $189.00. For more information, including how to purchase tickets, click here.