On the subject of an upcoming concert that was crowding out all other musical news, Rostropovich once sighed: “It’s an ewent.” Mike Nichols’ skilfully staged yet only sporadically effective Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s 1978 drama, Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig and his real-life wife, Rachel Weisz, as well as Rafe Spall, is not only an ewent: it’s a theatrical assemblage that quickly sold out its run. The show’s copywriters describe the demand as “unprecedented”, but, really, all those $400-plus tickets, and the hand-wringing they occasion, are old news.
The prices are worth noting in this instance only because what many people pay is out of balance with what they see on the Barrymore stage. There is the basic set, by Ian MacNeil, that suggests the story’s reverse-chronology, from London in 1977 to Venice in 1973 to London in 1968. And there are the no-nonsense costumes, by Ann Roth, that help to define Jerry, a literary agent; his old friend Robert, a publisher; and Robert’s wife, the art gallerist Emma, with whom Jerry is having an affair. Who knows what about the adultery, and when, propels the 90-minute evening.
While the wealthy may be splashing out primarily to glimpse Craig in all his craggily glorious flesh, there remains the matter of the play. I remain persuaded that Betrayal’s chilly flickers of feeling are best conveyed on the screen: log on to YouTube and watch the final scene of the 1983 movie adaptation, starring Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge and Ben Kingsley, and you’ll see what I mean.
Weisz’s performance as Emma only serves to reinforce this conviction. With a camera on her I can imagine all her character’s deceits conveyed tidily. But however sensational she looks in Roth’s costumes, she has not quite found a way to make all of Pinter’s unsettling intuitions explicit. In a big Broadway house that is not the ideal setting for the drama’s subtle gradations – the only fully satisfying production I have seen was in a 99-seat theatre – she rarely gives us the live equivalent of a close-up.
As Robert, Craig transmits more confidently. His interpretation seemed to me too self-effacing until the fifth of the play’s nine scenes, in which he speaks of the letters Robert and Jerry used to exchange during their Oxbridge days. “We were bright young men,” says Robert. “And close friends.” Though what is overt in this production – passion – isn’t the same as insight.
Craig makes us wonder just how close, and reminds us of the central truth of memorable drama, especially of the Pinter variety: what is sensed matters more than what is seen. Craig deserves praise for deciding not to play Jerry, the showier male role. He must have known that it is to Rafe Spall – if I may cite the lapidary phrase from Nichols’ previous, terrific Broadway production, Death of a Salesman – that attention must be paid. Making his Broadway debut, Spall brings this evening to life. He communicates not only what is halting and unspoken about the adulterous situation but also its absurdity.