Rialto Note:
19 December 2013

We saw Betrayal last night. The play itself did not engage Kathleen, but it certainly did me. We agreed that the performances were superb. Kathleen felt that the rather elaborate sets, involving rather spectacular set changes, simply underscored the play’s emptiness by attempting to provide substance where there wasn’t any. I was a kid with a model train set, hooked. In the end, I granted Kathleen this much: I appreciated Betrayal more as a show, almost as a ballet, than as a drama. But although I recognized the force of Kathleen’s argument that the play is “just a stunt” — scenes from an unremarkable and rather tacky love affair seen in reverse, beginning with an implicit post-mortem and ending with the first kiss — I was simply too moved by what I’d seen to dismiss it. And too dazzled by the wit.

Harold Pinter’s dialogue is so sketchy and hermetic — at times, he writes as if constrained by a set of not very literate refrigerator magnets — that it can be interpreted in different ways, and the way of Mike Nichols’s direction is to emphasize the wit. The characters don’t have particularly witty things to say, but they can say them with witty point, and the three stars in this revival, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall, and Daniel Craig are formidably equipped to make their encounters sparkle. Encounters, I say; confrontations (and their climaxes) are strenuously, successfully resisted. The married couple, Emma and Robert (played by the married couple in the cast), are like restless cats, prowling for excitement but leery of being scratched. Rafe Spall’s Jerry is a puppy dog, slow on the uptake. But Jerry is no dummy. He’s having an affair with his best friend’s wife. Emma takes it seriously enough to furnish a second home, a flat in Kilburn. She seems to have some idea that Jerry will leave his wife, the unseen Judith, but we know not only that he won’t but that it never crosses his mind to do so: Judith, clearly, is Jerry’s security blanket, his mother figure, his hearth. Or we knew it last night, thanks to Mr Spall’s affable characterization. In their refusal to answer simple questions simply, Pinter’s characters can seem dreadfully sullen; last night’s company made them look clever.

Judith is a doctor;  she is always busy at the hospital. Robert is a publisher, and Jerry is a literary agent. They’re not only best friends but professional colleagues. Jerry doesn’t want Robert to know about his affair with Emma, but this, if you ask me, this is the stunt: he’s drawn to Emma because she is his best friend’s wife. So he can pull one over on his best friend — who, it turns out, has been having affairs of his own. Jerry is so serenely untroubled by his betrayal of his friend that it amounts to not seeing the betrayal at all. Clearly, everybody’s moral compass, in this triangle, is on the blink, but Jerry’s is in worse shape than his friends’, because he is not a puppy dog. He is an adult human being, except not. More than once, it crossed my mind that the playwright may have chosen his male characters’ professions, so often felt to be parasitical by artists, with edifying malice.

Rafe Spall was new to me, although I have seen his father in many movies, so my response to his performance was one of uncomplicated pleasure. His costars were, I thought, old friends; I have seen them in many movies. But it was as if I’d never quite seen either of them before. Some screen actors fade onstage, although that’s doubtless less common in Britain, where theatre plays, proportionately, a vastly greater role in cultural life. Ms Weisz and Mr Craig, so far from fading, showed facets and faces that I had never guessed at; it was almost as though I’d only seen animated versions. She reminded me of Myrna Loy, of all people. (Kathleen thought she was Keira Knightley.) But she was much less “nice” than she tends to be in her films. He reminded me of — well, imagine that James Bond had a screw-up brother. (Mr Craig was very good at screw-ups before he became the leading man he is today.) These two actors had a grasp of what was wrong with Robert and Emma and their marriage that went deeper than rehearsal; their performances had the passion of people hoping to stave off a horror by playacting it. “Let’s try hard, darling, never to be like them.” Their one scene alone, the one set in Venice, was wretchedly pained.

What’s wrong with both Emma and Robert, or what makes them vulnerable to Jerry, is the bitterness of a restless disappointment that’s really Pinter’s hallmark. Mr Craig’s Robert fairly bursts with it in the restaurant scene, bouncing his leg like an activity-starved adolescent and trying to convince himself that he hates literature. Ms Weisz’s Emma begins each statement with a bright enthusiasm, as if hoping that her remark might summon forth a vision of satisfaction; when it doesn’t, her voice trails away. She only knows, as does her husband, that what she has got isn’t enough, not remotely. At the play’s beginning, you learn that Robert and Emma have decided to separate. At the end, you’re not unhappy about Jerry’s contribution to their breakup.

Betrayal is an essay in dramatic irony that leads to a hall of mirrors. Do they know about us? gives way to It doesn’t matter. That was Kathleen’s problem: it didn’t matter. But it somehow mattered to me. Something did.


In the old days, when I patterned pieces such as this one on professional reviews, I would be careful to run through the non-acting credits. Now I find that doing so is arguably misleading. But the sets — Ian MacNeil — and costumes — Ann Roth — were as witty, in their way, as the acting. Their work reminded us that, if Betrayal were to play out today, it would do so very differently. Wouldn’t it?