Betts on two horses
Liz Lochhead dubbed Torben Betts ‘about the most original and extraordinary writer of drama we have.’ Steve Cramer talks to a writer with two voices.
Steve Cramer Tell me a little about the origins of The Unconquered. The central character’s a girl, I understand, who is brutalised for standing up to reactionary forces?
Torben Betts I got the idea from a story by Somerset Maugham, set in rural France during the war. This German soldier intrudes upon a family home and ends up raping the daughter, and buying off her starving parents by offers of wealth and favour. I kind of transposed that same idea to this country or something like a modern European country in the near future, after a kind of socialist revolution. We know what happens in any small country that creates an independence and does things like nationalise its assets and begins to run things according to logic ?" they’re quite quickly put to rights by the prevailing empire.
SC So there’s a criticism of imperialism implicit in the text?
TB Yes. If you look at governments like Venezuela now, the prevailing empire will tend to support the counter revolution, and a lot of people die. This has been happening for many decades. One of my favourite lines in the play is: ‘There is no alternative to the free world, the free world will not tolerate a government with an unconventional philosophy.’ So it’s about this idea of the Americans and British in Iraq doing it all for benign reasons, all for the good of the people.
SC And it’s not about the oil?
TB (Chuckling) The oil? Oh no, it’s madness to suggest that!
SC How will the piece play?
TB It’s almost got a cartoon quality, a kind of comic strip feel to it. So all the props are kind of two dimensional ink on foam board props. It’s all quite heightened; the language is very non-naturalistic. It should be a kind of powerhouse production with a bizarre, dislocated feel to it.
SC We’re familiar in Scotland with one of your plays, A Listening Heaven, produced at the Lyceum a few years back, as a kind of Ayckbournian family drama, but a lot of your work has also been very radical politically and anti naturalistic, so there’s a kind of schizophrenia about the work . . .
TB I kind of write in two styles. I’ve got further in my career doing the kind of realism work, but I’m more interested in being radical and experimental. Fortunately, Muriel Romanes at Stellar Quines made me free to do what I want. Normally I get commissioned to do other kinds of work; I’ve got a commission at Ayckbourn’s theatre in the summer ?" that’s more in the Listening Heaven mould ?" he wouldn’t like this play one bit.
SC This double style seems to have brought you trouble at times, judging from the reviews of your The Lunatic Queen in London last year.
TB It got badly reviewed. One critic described me as a much touted protégé of Alan Ayckbourn - this isn’t true - and added that I’d fallen under the malign influence of Howard Barker. Actually, I think Barker is a genius. He very kindly named me as his potential successor. But it’s a problem for me, as you couldn’t get two writers so far apart, and people who like one don’t like the other. I actually think I’m different from both, and my work is certainly much darker than Ayckbourn’s.
Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Wed 14-Sat 17 Feb, then touring.