There is no sex in Betrayal. In other words, the play’s intimate scenes between couples both marital and extramarital include nothing more than a few kisses. Here’s one scene between Emma and her husband Robert: He kisses her, she responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her. And another between Emma and Robert’s closest friend, Jerry, who has become Emma’s lover: Emma and Jerry standing, kissing…he continues to hold her…. And later: she caresses him, they embrace. These are the stage notes written by playwright Harold Pinter in the script of his play, Betrayal. For a play about infidelity, the action is notably more verbal than physical. There’s certainly no clothes ripping or urgency sex between the illicit lovers as one might expect. Unless, of course, the reason for this affair is not primarily sexual. It’s an interesting take. After all, there’s more than one way to cheat on a spouse.
And yet, the affair between Emma and Jerry does not contain much emotional desire either. What represses Pinter’s play is his characters’ self-absorption. By writing them as self-interested partners, Pinter limits the degree to which they might probe substantial ideas about loyalty and love. The absence of that comes as a disappointment. Heartfelt desire – for someone or something – is one of the most compelling emotions to be found in drama and in life. In this play, the characters do not genuinely love or even crave one another. In fact, the only striking aspect is how minimally Emma and Jerry’s affair incorporates physical urges. What it seems to draw from is the need for companionship outside of a marriage that conjures boredom and resentment. The marriage of Robert and Emma is indeed pained. Aside from the moment when he kisses Emma, Robert’s treatment of his wife ranges from cold and removed to disparaging and abusive. Much of that treatment occurs after he learns Emma has cheated on him, but the writing gives the impression that he never cared for her that much at all, so much so that the tender scene where he holds her stands out as an anomaly.
Which brings me to Mike Nichol’s production on Broadway. That scene between Emma and Robert is directed as an aggressive foray into sex. The tender moment detailed in the script lasts but a second, and suddenly Robert is unzipping Emma’s pants. Similarly so, the kiss between Emma and Jerry escalates to unabashed, clothes-still-on fornicating. What’s going on in this production? Does Nichols read the script as conveying more physicality than the words dictate? Or does he want to titillate his audience by having two men make out with the stunningly beautiful Rachel Weisz, who plays Emma? Perhaps disappointingly, the prurient intrigue among viewers to watch Weisz “cheat” on her real-life husband Daniel Craig (Robert) is mitigated by a lack of passion between her and Jerry (Rafe Spall). Their conversations are too nervous to be overturned by the heat of sexuality. There is one scene that delivers true sexual desire however: the moment when Emma and Jerry’s affair begins, also known as, the last scene of the play.
Pinter’s approach in Betrayal is to move backward in time so that we progress from the affair’s end toward its beginning. It’s a clever decision that pays off only if the final scene (the affair’s conception) illuminates something new about these characters. But it’s more like, “Oh, this is the night when the affair started.” There is no discovery, neither in the script, nor in Nichol’s production. Jerry finds Emma attractive, she complies with his advances, and so it goes.
While it seems like a producer’s dream to have Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig perform Pinter, this is not a play in which one peels back layers to reveal deeper truths. Weisz, Craig, and Spall are all capable actors who do much with limited material. And of course, Weisz and Craig are so physically beautiful, they can hold a viewer’s attention through stage presence alone. The subject matter of Betrayal appears rich with dramatic possibilities. But real emotion needs to be at stake. Nichols adds in sex to convey that feeling. But sex without emotion is empty. The director who so brilliantly brought us The Graduate, Working Girl, and Closer surely knows that.
photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe