A Theatre of Anxiety
by Adam Barnard, September 2007
(Introduction to PLAYS THREE)
The three plays in this volume are set in the houses and gardens of middle-class English homeowners. If this resonates security, my advice to the reader is: brace yourself. Just behind the tapestry fabric curtains, around the corner from the flourishing sunflowers, Torben Betts offers three assemblies of deeply pained human beings who struggle with the most basic questions about how we should live our lives.
This is a world of floundering, sub-Alpha males and suicidally miserable women, of bullying parents, torturous childhoods and failing relationships. These are lives wracked with despair over choices made, baffled by the most basic conundrum: what would it take to make me happy?
Each play in isolation is an assault on the image of modern England as a country where family, a little disposable income and ‘good old bricks and mortar’ (William’s increasingly hollow catchphrase in The Company Man) are the supposed circumstances of happiness. Together the plays form both lament and manifesto. Betts elevates to protagonist status a procession of characters who are coming to terms with their own insignificance, pushed by circumstance to articulate their sense of talentlessness and failure. The urgency of their need to feel that ‘there must be more to life’ is crucial to these plays’ dramatic potency.
A gathering of family or old acquaintances is the catalyst. Such occasions are all too often subsumed in stock-taking of your life and comparison with other people. Their successes stalk you as the ghosts of what you might have been. Unwittingly, yours do the same to them. Lives are reduced to measurements and the terms of success controlled by the strongest personalities; Donald’s assumption at the beginning of The Optimist is that happiness is proportionate to house size and salary. The obtuse pressure of these sorts of parties is a burden; no surprise, then, that it is all too easy to misjudge a moment and find yourself publicly embarrassed.
And modern life itself is a burden. Witness Lindsay’s obsession in The Swing of Things with buying her daughter a horse and getting her ‘into that school’, and the financial and psychological mess her husband Mark creates in the face of those aspirations. Mark, like Tom in The Optimist and Richard in The Company Man, retreats back into alcoholism to escape bankruptcy, both financial and emotional. The daughters in the latter two plays both turn their backs on England in favour of remote and unfamiliar countries where they can escape Western pressures and assumptions.
The plays echo each other not only in theme but also in theatrical language. Tense silences that ‘build and build’, a duologue where one party remains stubbornly mute, a confession from the heart during which the intended auditor slips away unnoticed, the awful embarrassment of overhearing what you are not meant to overhear, the inability to interject in what is supposedly a conversation, or even to finish a sentence – all are characteristic of a dramatic universe where nothing is easy.
So what genre is this work? The Swing of Things, which riffs on the dreaded school reunion, looks most obviously a comedy. Yet in a post-show discussion at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the audience expressed surprise when an actor referred to ‘playing comedy’. ‘Is it a comedy?’ someone asked. Someone else: ‘I felt uncomfortable laughing. It was nervous laughter.’
And here I think is the particular genius of Betts, a dramatic vision for dissecting middle England which is truly his own.
A drama of middle-class life in this playwright’s hands is one of painful realism rather than glossy naturalism. Such is the seething uncertainty of the characters that the audience comes to share the mantra many of them adopt: ‘I just don’t know what to do.’
This is important because Betts is too often filed, especially by lazy critics, next to his sometime patron Sir Alan Ayckbourn, and latterly too with Mike Leigh. Ayckbourn’s work nails the foibles of middle England to ingenious comic effect; Leigh’s finds, in the minutiae of everyday life, something both sad and redeeming. But for all the surface similarities, what Betts offers is different and deserves to be assessed on its own terms. Played properly, these works should evoke in us the same anxiety that courses through the veins of their characters. This is not a theatre of carefully managed trajectories. These are characters who are either already in freefall as the play begins, or who find themselves hurled suddenly off the cliff towards its end.
Nor is this a theatre of existential despair. For all the pain of the characters, for all the discomfort of an audience watching them, there is huge thirst for life here. When the question, ‘what have I done with my life?’ is asked again and again with such urgency, life itself is elevated to the highest level.
The plays in this volume should be a rallying cry. As Lindsay comments in The Swing of Things, we are living longer than ever before. Many grow up facing a bewildering array of options. The mantra of our age, at a time when a few appearances on a TV gameshow constitutes ‘making it’, is that anyone can achieve anything. All you need is a bit of that elusive thing called talent. The hangover from this sunny, origin-shattering optimism is that it is increasingly difficult to pronounce yourself satisfied with your lot. For Richard, in The Company Man, whose stab at pop stardom went nowhere, or Mark, the also-ran footballer of The Swing of Things, the age of opportunity is also the age of failure.
Redemption, then, lies in our relationship with time. Much of the suffering in these plays stems from characters’ inability to free themselves from a negative obsession with the past (or, as with Caroline in The Swing of Things or Ben in The Optimist, constant projection into the future). ‘Forget about the past,’ Cathy advises Jane in The Company Man. ‘But you see,’ Jane replies. ‘That’s such a hard thing to do.’ Moments later the play lurches twenty years into its own past to track the neglected spark between Jane and her adoring friend James, an opportunity for happiness missed because neither could bring themselves to seize the moment and run with it.
Our time is precious and finite, says Betts. That this is a godless universe is casually implicit. What emerges from these twisted, tortured scenarios is the importance of making the most of every moment. In the stammered words of Steve, the traumatised Gulf War veteran in The Swing of Things: ‘I think the only people who really…appreciate this life…the wonder and beauty of this very short, precious life of ours…are people who’ve nearly lost it.’ Later, appealing to Ruth to see the purpose of remaining alive, he offers a vision for a new life together : ‘We’ll just…be.’
Herein lies the universality of these plays, set among the detritus of comfortable lives in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The more sophisticated our social structures become, the harder it is to remember the fundaments of the life they have been built around. Six-storey townhouses and six-figure salaries will never be a substitute for love.