Betrayal is a perfect work of art and probably the greatest play not written by Shakespeare. Harold Pinter has a total mastery over his language, distilling it in a way that even surpasses Beckett—every word, every moment is essential, and the cumulative effect of his silences and terse sentences is shattering.
Mike Nichols, whose Death of a Salesman was the highlight of my theatrical life, should have been the right man for Betrayal. The former production exposed an intimacy I had never seen on the stage, one that warranted Miller’s original title, The Inside of His Head. Leaving the theater, I stumbled around Times Square, unaware that I was walking away from my subway and unready to resume human contact. Here, however, something is lost–perhaps it is because Pinter is quintessentially British and Mr. Nichols is quintessentially American or perhaps it it because his actors don’t seem to understand the script. Either way, the result is underwhelming.
Betrayal is a story told in reverse (beginning in 1977 and ending in 1968) about the love between Robert (Daniel Craig) and his best friend Jerry (Rafe Spall) but is disguised as a story about Jerry’s affair with Robert’s wife, Emma (Rachel Weisz). Therefore, its most heartbreaking moments do not come from the apparent eponymous betrayal but from the more subtle one: for example, when Robert discovers a letter from Jerry to Emma, he asks, while needling her for a confession but in a moment of weakness, “Was there any message for me, in his letter? … No message? Not even his love?” A few minutes later, ostensibly as a joke, he says to her, “I’ve always liked Jerry. To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.” Robert’s primary anger, then, does not come from Emma sleeping with Jerry, but from Emma stealing Jerry’s affection. But Mr. Nichols directs it as if it were another suburban adultery narrative, perhaps something that could have been written by John Updike. And the way Mr. Craig plays this scene, we get none of the tenderness that is present in the text. Choking down whiskey, he screams at Emma, which I found, in the words of Ford Madox Ford, not “quite English good form.” What should be reserved and psychologically aggressive is instead made demonstrative and verbally aggressive, both in this scene and in most others. Mr. Spall fares a little better, though he doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with either of his fellow actors, and Ms. Weisz, playing the play’s most thankless part, never convinces us why either of these men would get so much joy and pain out of this woman.
Still, Pinter (along with Tom Stoppard) is not seen enough on the American stage, and it would be dishonest to write that I found no enjoyment in this Betrayal. Even weakly performed and weakly staged, the play holds a tremendous power over its audience and it still remains a delight to bask in its impeccable writing.
Betrayal runs through January 5th at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. 243 West 47th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.