The Unconquered (4 stars)

North Edinburgh Arts Centre, Wed 7 Mar, then touring


Sometimes, as one leaves a theatre, one can already sense the divide within an audience over the play just watched. Torben Betts’ new piece for Stellar Quines is such a case. The bone of contention? In technique, this piece resembles nothing so much as an agit prop play of days gone by. Complete with grotesque papier maché props and an abstract giant doll’s house setting, it telegraphs its violent opposition to the status quo in a manner that might frighten the horses among an 80s generation taught to fear such overt aesthetic techniques. Younger practitioners and audiences are keen for such experiments, while older ones will recall them from the 70s, but the middle aged might feel a little threatened.

A shame, really, for Betts’ angry forensics, tempered as they are by a rich and rhythmic poetic language have much to say to this Tesco and Ikea-drugged generation. The play posits not some vague unrest within the body politic, but a specifically socialist revolution in a Western Country not entirely unlike our own. As the Prime Minister and his cabinet are imprisoned, the great wave of popular uprising laps at the door of a dysfunctional middle class family, dividing the empty, spiritually impoverished parents from a daughter whose intellectualism leaves her a distant, voyeuristic cheerleader to the mighty events unfolding. A giant jet fighter, leading a violent American counter insurgency hangs like the judgement of some malevolent god over their home, and a soldier arrives to rape and impregnate the daughter.

Muriel Romanes’ production, in front of Keith McIntyre’s suitably caricatured design, captures the savage indignation of the piece nicely. Like some Augustan satirist, Betts concentrates upon our capacity for consumption over analysis, filling the air with grotesque, animalistic sounds of mastication, digestion and appetite as the parents fail utterly to reflect upon the world they have created, to the point where helicopters and gunfire, equally grotesquely amplified, seem to follow with horrifying inevitability. This glowering vision of what the west is putting in the bank for itself posits no easy solutions, and though the middle stages could be trimmed a little, the whited-up four strong cast performs with admirable power and precision.

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