Tom Hiddleston is scary good in riveting ‘Betrayal’ on Broadway
Tom Hiddleston, the star of director Jamie Lloyd’s eye-popping revival of “Betrayal,” now on Broadway in a transfer from London, is a pretty perfect Pinter player.
He’s capable of great warmth but also a dangerous growl. He can shed a vulnerable tear when a scene so demands, and he does, but he’s also craggily commanding in his movie-star way, his very physical presence implying that no one who has been caught up in his romantic orbit ever is likely to fully escape. In this lean, incisive, oft-revived three-hander from 1978, Hiddleston plays Robert, whose wife Emma (Zawe Ashton) is having a long-term affair with Jerry (Charlie Cox), who just happens to be Robert’s best friend from college.
"Betrayal," a favorite among actors and directors for its orgy of delicious subtext spoken and left unsaid by highly intellectual characters, travels backwards in time. You first see an affair ended and then one beginning. Sometimes the audience knows more than the characters; often the characters know more than the audience.
But the key scene comes slap bang in the juicy middle, the one where Robert finds out that his wife is not his alone. It's at this juncture that this existential affair asks its most central question: What's worse? Your spouse having an affair or your finding out that your spouse is having an affair?
Maybe what you don't know cannot hurt you. But it might just kill you first.
And that's where Hiddleston most thrives: you feel for his cuckolded husband and you fear him, as do both his wife and her lover, neither of whom really know what they are doing or what the consequences of their act will turn out to be. That's the main paradox of "Betrayal," how an expression of love and raw desire can also uncap a bottle of poison in a marriage, leading everyone down a path of risk and, let's be honest, heart-racing excitement. The play, based on Pinter's real-life shenanigans, hardly is an argument for boring fidelity. We're all too animalistic for that, it says, in a blast from a very different, maybe unwelcome but surely more honest era. Yet, let's not forget, what is more tender than the touch of a lover having a secret tumble?
What makes Lloyd's minimalist (and thus expansionist) production different from every other revival of this work is its relentless focus on triangulation, and its subtly wrought ability to remove Robert, Emma and Jerry from any particular chronological moment, sending them spiraling through time like bodies and minds linked in eternity.
When the woman is with the lover, the husband is there. When she is with her husband, the lover is there. When the lover is with the husband, the wife is never really absent, however much these battling men might otherwise pretend in the most bro of moments together. You don’t feel like Cox’s Jerry could ever stand up to Hiddleston’s Robert, but then that’s the point. For Emma, who the very physical and fascinating Ashton interprets as a woman pushed and pulled every which way, this illicit lovemaking in a secret flat feels here like it must be blissful relief from the intensity of the man she married. And loves.
To put all that another way, this consistently riveting “Betrayal” (which is very shrewdly designed by Soutra Gilmour, Jon Clark and the clever sound team of Ben and Max Ringham) takes a play that is usually composed of well-spoken, over-privileged and unlikable people and strips them of their posh accents and pretentious feelings, revealing the scared and sharp-toothed critters underneath. And yet it also understands that infidelity has a sweet and gentle side. If it didn’t, it would not remain so popular. Cheaters often crave the everyday feelings most of all.