With every play, Zawe Ashton searches for what she calls “the heart line.” “It’s the line you can return to at any point in the process and either find something new or find the same, or it grounds you or releases you.”
Yet, with Harold Pinter’s Betrayal—about the intertwining, well, betrayals between a gallery owner, her publisher husband, and his literary agent best friend (also her lover)—“this is one of the first times when I haven’t gone in search of that.”
She hasn’t needed it.
Emma emerged from Ashton, like she had been hibernating in the actor’s bones, when she and now co-star Tom Hiddleston performed Betrayal’s gut-punch Torcello scene in October 2018 as part of a gala benefit for director Jamie Lloyd’s theatre company tied to Pinter at the Pinter. “Suddenly, everyone was saying, ‘Are you rehearsing for Betrayal?’ And we were like, ‘No, we’ve had 15 minutes,’” she recalls. “Something just happened energetically, chemically.”
Those 15 minutes inspired the production that became a smash in London before transferring to Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where it now plays through December 8. Though she’s rehearsed and performed the play over 100 times, Ashton’s performance crackles with freshness as she puts every previous performance out of her mind and approaches the language anew each night.
Because Ashton’s priority is not to become her version of Emma, it’s to become Pinter’s. As a writer-actor like Pinter, she feels a duty to commune with “Harold,” as she tellingly calls him. To create the character based on his imagination not her own. “You can’t bend [these roles] to fit your needs,” she says. “You have to be the most present, the most open, the most direct, the most visceral you can be to really do Harold’s work justice.”
Which is why it’s become crucial to her process that she and her two co-stars remain onstage from start to finish—lingering as specters during scenes between the other two. It’s not just about the audience considering their presence, the play’s balance is an energetically precarious one that demands the actors’ uninterrupted focus. Betrayal is an exercise in nonstop listening. “The words are so visceral, to try to disengage is almost impossible,” she says. “What’s wonderful is when you’re standing at the back or sitting at the side or living through the scene you’re not in, you get a new perspective on the situation.”
And that applies to Ashton’s own way of moving through the world. An author, playwright, actor, and who-knows-future-what, Ashton is a woman driven by self-discovery. And playing Emma has changed Ashton’s perspective on her own life.
“One of the best secrets we have among ours is we know how to play it from 28 to 38,” she explains. “There’s this pressure when you’re supposed to be aging backwards, but you sort of play old and then play young. One of the most beautiful things it taught me about my own life: there really is very little difference between me age 28 and me age 38. There are only your experiences. I can tell myself a story about how different I was then—how differently I did things, how much more sensible or free or chaotic or whatever the story—but really there’s not that much difference.”
As a result, Ashton doesn’t so much play Emma as exist as her. She is indescribably full and real (as are Hiddleston’s Robert and Charlie Cox’s Jerry).
She is sensual and vulnerable. Emma pulses with power, curiosity, and a desire to engage with life. “I think she wants to just really live fully as a human,” says Ashton. “Harold has written a woman that has taken her space in male-dominated environments and she’s engaging more with intimating, she’s engaging more with sex, she’s engaging more with art, she’s engaging more with modernity than the two men in the play.”
Suddenly, it makes sense why Ashton spends the entire play barefoot. Emma wants to experience every sensation; she wants the fewest barriers between her and her pleasure in the world.
Ashton adds, “She’s so comfortable in her own moment.”
And Ashton is experiencing her own Emma-like moment. While making her Broadway debut in Betrayal, Ashton is also in rehearsal for the play she wrote for all the women who thought they were Mad, beginning performances October 14 at Off-Broadway’s Soho Rep.
Though the papers champion the “overnight success” of the 34-year-old (who also starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw and released her book Character Breakdown earlier this year), don’t be fooled. Ashton’s been acting since she was six and wrote this play 11 years ago while part of the Royal Court Writers’ Group.
Her play examines a different kind of betrayal—specifically of healthcare systems that have abandoned the women they are supposed to care for, particularly women of color, because of gender and cultural biases. “It's about trans-generational trauma, it's about women of color and mortality around child birth, it's about mental health, it's about the fallout of colonialism,” Ashton explains.
Though these may be hot button issues now, Ashton struggled for a decade to find a place to produce the work.
“I’ve been made to feel like I’ve been peddling a dangerous document. And maybe I am. Or maybe it’s just not a very good play,” she says without hubris.
If her meticulous thought and capacity to relate are any indication, it’s a good play, and history tells us that “dangerous” theatre is often the most necessary. Ashton seems poised to be the one to deliver it.
She’s wildly intelligent without elitism; she’s inviting and calm, yet ebullient. She’s a provocateur and a deep thinker.
Reclining on the couch in the Playbill studio, cradling a pillow in her lap, Ashton is contemplative above all else.
Thinking back to the start of our conversation, Ashton rewinds: “I wonder if one of the heart lines is in Scene 9, which is the end of the play. Jerry says to her, ‘I watched you walk by in white,’ talking about her wedding day to Robert and him being the Best Man, and she says, ‘I wasn’t in white.’ It’s very telling about the woman that she is. To say it and be like, ‘Don’t put me in a box.’” No wonder Ashton felt right at home in Emma’s bare feet.