The Plays of Torben Betts
by Adam Barnard in the programme for the Orange Tree Theatre's production of Invincible, March 2014
Torben Betts often finds himself compared with prestigious writers – from Joseph Conrad and V. S. Naipaul to Alan Ayckbourn and Mike Leigh – but I know of no writer quite like Torben Betts. Such is the variety of form and subject in Torben’s ever-growing cannon (14 plays produced, at last count; half a dozen others waiting in the wings; a debut film, Downhill, due for release in May) that you might be forgiven for thinking that there were Two Torbens, or even Three.
The Torben you’re seeing here might be termed the Domestic, or perhaps Domesticated, Torben. Like the three Betts plays previously produced at the Orange Tree – 2001’s Clockwatching, 2010’s The Company Man and 2012’s Muswell Hill – Invincible takes place in the living area of a decidedly English dwelling. These works form a strand of ‘well-made’ social realist plays, comic if not always comedy: their characters’ lives are a dance around work, marriage, parenting, mortgages and The Meaning Of It All. People stumble over their words, fret about social niceties and, almost invariably, drink too much.
Those whose experience of Betts stops here might be surprised at the Hyde to his Jekyll. There is Incarcerator, a riotous blast of rhyming couplets modelled on Jacobean revenge drama; there are plays epic and historical, such as Constantina, set in Emperor Nero’s Rome, or Beyond The Ocean Sea, a foul-mouthed and visceral account of the Spanish Conquistadors who helped themselves to the people and land of the New World. There is fiercely political work in the tradition of 1970s agit-prop, such as his award-winning play The Unconquered, depicting a Western country in the aftermath of a socialist revolution. There are formally free-wheeling texts such as Lie of the Land, a nightmarish chamber piece which ends with its protagonists, adorned in Santa hats, frantically readying themselves for the arrival of a violin-playing Devil figure as invisible glass smashes around them and, outside, Britain is so overrun by floods and storms that it has been rendered an archipelago.
Many find Domestic Torben the easiest to get along with. You can see why. Familiar settings; characters with Lives Like Ours; obedience to the laws of naturalistic drama. This mode has its roots in Betts’ association with Sir Alan Ayckbourn during the latter’s directorship of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. It was Sir Alan who first ‘discovered’ Torben, granting him a writing residency and championing “one of the most exciting theatre writing talents I have come across in many a year” – praise which the poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead (now also the Scots ‘Makar’) would echo a few years later, citing Betts as “just about the most extraordinary writer of drama we have”.
Needless to say, the plays which suited the tastes of an audience attuned to Planet Ayckbourn were those set in the houses of Little Englanders, though Betts presented a bleaker world: a dysfunctional family’s squabbles following the protest-suicide of a young environmentalist in A Listening Heaven; a school reunion from hell thrown by a woman who wants revenge on classmate bullies in The Swing of Things.
Meanwhile, Torben found himself drawn to the uncompromisingly aggressive plays of Howard Barker, who became a friend; Barker’s shadow is discernible in the epic and poetic side of Betts’ work. The contrast could prove confusing and a little overwhelming. In 2005 two Betts dramas, a domestic comedy called The Biggleswades and an ambitious Jacobean epic called The Lunatic Queen, opened in London in the same week. Reviewing both for the Observer, the critic Kate Kellaway reflected on “a playwright who tries on many hats”. “On the face of it,” she wrote, the two plays “could not be more different… Except for one thing: they entertain and disturb simultaneously”.
Indeed, while these plays may look and sound wildly different, they’re unmistakably the work of a single mind. Whether in sixteenth century Spain or contemporary northern England, anxiety rages over greed (imperialist or capitalist – is there much difference anyway?) and the collateral damage of Western comfort or class privilege. Dawn’s fury in Invincible at politicians who won’t send their own children to war is echoed by a returning soldier in Broken, Betts’ dystopian epic based on the work of the German expressionist Ernst Toller. The conflicted urge of those born comfortably-off to mix with ‘real’ people has its poetic counterpart in Lie of the Land: “We should shake their toil-toughened fists,” says ‘Him’. “Oh, that dreadful collapse of articulation will descend upon me,” replies ‘Her’.
And death is never far away: whether of children (as in A Listening Heaven), of parents (as in The Company Man) or even of pets (a blinded canary forms part of the grim opening of Broken).If Betts is not more famous or successful, it is partly perhaps because the shifting style of his work makes him hard to classify. Betts has indicated that he may suspend theatre output to concentrate on film and television, with the prospect of greater audiences and remuneration.
Not everyone will like everything this writer does, but it is refreshing to encounter an artist exploring so relentlessly. It is surely theatre’s loss if any of the Torbens turn their back on the stage. •
Adam Barnard has directed Torben Betts’ plays The Company Man (Orange Tree, 2010), Lie of the Land (Pleasance/Arcola, 2008-9) and The Swing of Things (Stephen Joseph Theatre, 2007).