On the surface, yet another revival of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal shouldn’t be all that notable.
There have been plenty of recent high-profile revivals of Pinter’s study of self-deception and adultery that serves as perhaps his most accessible and humane play. But this Broadway production starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall and directed by Oscar-winning veteran Mike Nichols, that opened on Sunday night just off Manhattan’s Times Square, is a commercial phenomenon. Tickets are selling on New York’s black market for four-figure sums to see real-life couple Craig and Weisz play an unhappily married couple in a limited run.
The production itself reinforces the idea that this is no ordinary Betrayal. Of course Nichols’s version retains the play’s reverse chronological structure chronicling the love affair between Jerry (Spall) and Emma (Weisz) who is married to his best friend Robert (Craig). It begins in 1977 with Emma and Jerry meeting two years after their seven-year affair finished and ends when their liaison began at a drunken party in 1968.
But gone are the trademark Pinter pauses and the tenderness that have defined recent versions, most notably Ian Rickson’s West End production in 2011. Nichols takes liberties with stage directions, adding a fully-clothed sex scene, and renders the play’s climatic party scene unrecognisable from how it usually plays out.
Although this production never catches its breath to reveal the slow-burning ashes of the past that the play usually makes vivid, knockout performances from both Craig and Weisz render it a Betrayal on fire. Nichols’s crude and chaotic depiction of the love triangle is powerfully compelling theatre – enhanced, one feels, by the real-life frisson supplied by the onstage sparring of Weisz and Craig.
Craig is brilliant as Robert, capturing the character’s menace and vulnerability, hurt more by the betrayal of his best friend than this wife. His assured performance reminds us he’s a stage natural and why so many 007 fans initially thought him insufficiently heroic to be a good Bond when the casting was first announced. Weisz is excellent as Emma, evoking the mastery she has over both her husband and his best friend, while conveying the emotional devastation she undergoes through piercing facial gestures.
There will be Pinter aficionados who mourn the absence of the layers beneath the surface. This version bears as much resemblance to many previous productions as a club kid does to a Chelsea pensioner. But the juxtaposition of Pinter’s starkly precise dialogue with such a frenzied production reinforces the emotional violence and dishonesty suffered by all three protagonists. It would be a shame if this fine production didn’t come home to London where the play first began.