The Unconquered

Torben Betts
Stellar Quines
Customs House, South Shields

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The first words uttered by our nameless character, the GIRL, "How I hate…how I loathe…How I abhor…". One can't help but think of poor Masha opening The Seagull with the equally miserable statement, "I am in mourning for my life."

Unlike Checkov's Seagull, Torben Bett's does not pummel us into the ground with misery but creates an organised yet chaotic structure and drowns the woeful dramatics with fiery 21st century angst and rebellion.

The GIRL, played by Pauline Turner, is the angry daughter of the equally nameless FATHER (Kevin Macmonagle) and MOTHER (Jane Guernier). The GIRL is disgusted by the world and the way in which her parents live, in their cocoon of domesticity, and hides away in her books. Then the routine life of this 'normal' dysfunctional family is harshly interrupted by a people's revolution which arrives in the form of the mercenary SOLDIER played by Nigel Barrett.

With a superb set design by Keith McIntyre, it was easy to see inside the mind of our writer. The set made me think immediately of Tim Burton and his macabre and garish style. A 3D metal frame of a house dominated the stage decorated only with black and white, two dimensional adornment such as chandeliers and hanging mirrors. In fact, all props (including guns) were two dimensional which gives particular power to last scene of the play (no… I'm not going to spoil it). To the left of the house was a doll's house which I perceived to be the house from afar, maybe a universal house that could one of ours with its 'normal' dysfuctions. The characters matched this comic book set with white faces, bizarre hair styles and carefully crafted flamboyant clothing.

With only small black flats, we saw the workings of this theatrical event, such as when the actors came on and went off, when they changed, when papers were scattered by a stage technician and within the scene changes where the whole company and theatre staff redressed the house. I felt privileged in a way, as if I'd been allowed backstage!

Betts' writing is breathtaking as is the vocal precision and resonance with which the actors perform his words. One can imagine the tongue twisters they must practice! The pace of the play alternates, constantly twisting and turning, with heavy repetition and revealing monologues throughout, finally building to a booming and fraught last scene where words become useless and blend into screams.

Bett's play is stylish, energetic and boiling over with passion: my only criticism would be that there seemed to be no resolution or plenary, if you like. I saw a theatrical reflection of modern Western feeling but no real ideals were attached to help conquer this 'Trigger-happy tabloid reading' new world. We can completely relate to the central character and her anger at the structure and banality of life. Yes, we can relate but it does not help us live it. I suppose if there were answers, we would have found them by now and maybe it is a true artistic reflection of life because there is no ray of hope or realistic goal we can strive for in this increasingly difficult world. Or maybe it's just ridiculous, over-educated, over-analysis and I/we should think of the starving people in Africa who are more concerned with famine that futile questions? (Well, I had to get that in there, didn't I!)

I really did enjoy this play although 'enjoy' seems like the wrong word. It has certainly made me think a great deal about what we can do to help the world or rather… ourselves… and it has most certainly inspired me to read more of Betts' work and seek out future productions directed by Muriel Romanes.

Rachel Lynn Brody reviewed a recast version of this production in New York in 2008

Reviewer: V Mitchell

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