“Bond on Broadway? Starring in a play about adultery with his wife? I'm there!” Chris Cohen, a 38-year-old banker living in New York's Upper East Side, might not be the most committed theatre-goer. But his comment captures the excitement presently surrounding the Broadway revival of Betrayal, Harold Pinter's 1978 play, which will have its opening night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in Times Square on 27 October.
British actors Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall star in the production directed by the Oscar-winner Mike Nichols. Fuelled by the 007 effect – Craig's most recent turn as James Bond in Skyfall was the spy franchise's most commercially successful to date – and the added frisson of him being unhappily married on stage to Weisz, his wife in real life, the show is sold out for nearly all of its limited 14-week-run. As of earlier this week, when previews began, the first available pair of tickets at the 1,000-plus seater Barrymore Theatre are for 27 November.
Three weeks before it officially opens, Betrayal is the most successful Broadway play of recent times, eclipsing Julia Roberts's appearance on The Great White Way in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain in 2006. “Betrayal has an even bigger advance than Julia Roberts commanded because of all the premium seats now sold,” says the influential New York Post Broadway columnist Michael Riedel. “The box-office advance is over $10m [£6.25m] and it could hit $12m by opening night, which would be the highest ever for a non-musical.”
The fact that it is breaking Broadway's record books marks yet another intriguing chapter in Betrayal's extraordinary history. Pinter based the play on his affair with Joan Bakewell between 1962 and 1969 while he was married to his first wife, Vivien Merchant. He wrote Betrayal while being in another extra-marital relationship, with the historian Lady Antonia Fraser, who became his second wife in 1980. Perhaps overshadowed by the playwright's private life, Betrayal opened to mixed reviews at the National Theatre in 1978. Sir Peter Hall's production featured Michael Gambon as Jerry, caught up in a love triangle with his best friend Robert and Robert's wife Emma, who were played by then real-life married couple Daniel Massey and Penelope Wilton.
Subsequently critics and audiences have warmed to its sharp insights on emotional cruelty and self-deception contained within an innovative reverse-chronological structure: the play begins with the end of the affair between Emma and Jerry and ends with their initial seduction. Indeed, many perceive it to be Pinter's masterpiece.
Betrayal has enjoyed five high-profile West End and UK productions in the last 15 years with Kristin Scott Thomas, John Simm, Toby Stephens, Aidan Gillen, Douglas Hodge and Imogen Stubbs among those to have appeared in it. But it hasn't been seen on Broadway since 2000, a production which starred Liev Schreiber, Juliette Binoche and a pre-Mad Men John Slattery and was directed by Englishman, David Leveaux. Its themes of adultery and artifice are both timeless and highly relevant to our age and, Leveaux suggests, the play marks Pinter at his most accessible. “As well as a masterpiece, it's probably Harold's most comprehensible play for people worried about Pinter being an exercise in style – which he wasn't,” Leveaux says. “It's such a compelling story.”
This Broadway revival, produced by the film and theatre mogul Scott Rudin, arose because Craig and Weisz passionately like the play. Leveaux reveals that he first tried to cast Weisz in Betrayal in New York over a decade ago: “I asked Rachel if she could do Betrayal in New York but at that time she wasn't the star that she is now and [the producers] were saying, 'We don't know if we can get it off the ground'. So I'm thrilled – because she was born to do it.” Nichols also has unfinished business with Pinter: their collaboration on the film of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-Prize winning novel The Remains of the Day was rejected by Sony in the early Nineties in favour of the Merchant-Ivory treatment.
Craig and Weisz have told US media that they leave the adulterous entanglements behind when they go back to their home in downtown Manhattan. “We don't talk about it... It's important to be separate entities when you're at work,” Craig said on National Public Radio. He added, to New York magazine: “We know we're exposing ourselves, but we're professionally exposing ourselves which is what we do as actors. We'll go to work, and we'll do it and we'll go home. We may hit some problems, and there may be friction. Who knows? It could happen.” Craig's last time on Broadway was in A Steady Rain in 2009 before he was married to, or indeed in a relationship with, Weisz. She has not acted on stage since her Olivier Award-winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar four years ago.
Playing Jerry, Spall, who has recently emerged as a leading man in British film, was a surprise choice for some. Jerry and Robert are supposed to be Cambridge contemporaries and yet at 30, Spall is 15 years younger than Craig. “Rafe Spall has grown a beard to address the discrepancy,” says a source, “and he's also being aged by make-up artist Ivana Primorac who made Philip Seymour Hoffman seem so much older in Death of a Salesman” [last year's Arthur Miller Broadway revival also directed by Nichols].
This production is clearly critic-proof but New York reviewers will have their say when Betrayal opens at the end of the month. Lady Antonia Fraser tells The Independent that her late husband, who died of cancer in 2008, would have approved. “Harold admired Daniel Craig's performance in [1996 BBC TV drama] Our Friends in the North enormously. He said, 'that's my kind of actor'.” She is going to New York to see the production.
This autumn represents something of a long-overdue celebration for Pinter on Broadway, which has not staged his work since 2008. In three weeks' time, his 1975 play No Man's Land is being revived a block away from Betrayal with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, who will perform it in rep with Waiting for Godot.
Rival producers are envious of Betrayal. “Would I like to be on board? That would be a 'yes',” says one, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But it's worth noting that the show is heavily advertising which it doesn't need to do since it's a guaranteed sell-out. Combined with a limited run, this means it won't be as profitable as it could have been.”
Irrespective of the nationality of its three stars, from the start the intention was never to transfer Betrayal to London since early next year Craig is going to embark on pre-production on Bond 24. So, unlike the promises we've become used to at the end of a Bond film, come 6 January 2014, Betrayal will not be back.
'Betrayal', Barrymore Theatre, New York (www.shubertorganization.com/theatres/barrymore.asp) to 5 January