The Swing of Things
(Programme note for the SJT production, September 2007)
by Mark Fisher, Guardian
The playwright and poet Liz Lochhead called him “just about the most original and extraordinary writer of drama we have”. Time Out said he was “an uncommonly talented playwright”. A critic in the Times claimed he chose words with the “precision of a Conrad or a Naipaul”. High praise indeed for Torben Betts before he has even reached the age of 40. Extraordinary though this acclaim is, what is even more remarkable is the playwright’s capacity to change his spots. He has the shape-shifting ability to be all things to all people. So varied are his plays, it’s hard to believe they are all the work of the same man.
On one hand there are the domestic comedy-dramas that go down a treat here at the SJT, where he was once writer-in-residence. These include A Listening Heaven, a middle-class tragedy about parents and children, Clockwatching, a black family comedy, Her Slightest Touch and now The Swing of Things.
On the other hand there are the demanding poetic tragedies that most closely recall the pugnacious theatre of Howard Barker. Among these are Five Visions of the Faithful, a savage philosophical satire about religion, Incarcerator, a grotesque verse drama, and the award-winning The Unconquered, a high-octane tragi-comedy about a Britain undergoing the upheaval of a people’s revolution.
“People have described me as the next Barker and people have described me as the next Ayckbourn and you can’t get further apart than those two,” says Betts, who was born in Lincolnshire, educated at Liverpool University and now lives with his young family in Berwick-upon-Tweed. “My publisher said I was risking career suicide because I build up an audience for a certain kind of play and then write another type of play that makes them never want to see my work again.”
His name has also been mentioned in the same breath as Pinter, Beckett, Berkoff, Albee and Bond, writers normally thought to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to Ayckbourn. If Betts is the missing link between the two, it is because he is prepared to show the comfortable middle-class settings and easy comedy of manners with which many audiences feel at home, as well as the seams of despair that lie behind the cheery face his characters show to the world. Like Ayckbourn in his darker moments, Betts explores the emotional void behind the sunny exterior; and like Barker in his lighter moments, he is prepared to laugh in the face of looming tragedy.
His latest play, The Swing of Things is set in the cosy milieu of old school friends at a pleasant if slightly awkward reunion party. We settle into the character comedy only to find old tensions and new anxieties resurfacing to shatter the complacency of what had appeared to be another bourgeois drama. “Torben strips away the surface and you get to see the frightened heart of his characters,” says theatre director Alan Wilson, who has worked on a number of his plays. “He pins them down and they squirm and wriggle and you see them trying to sort themselves out.”
This might suggest the playwright’s work is dry or difficult but, whatever style he chooses, Betts is always accessible, never abstruse. Crucially, he likes to use comedy to his advantage. “I always try to make the laughter an anxious one,” he explains. “It creates a tension between the actors and the audience. I always think that’s where the most interesting stuff in theatre works: something unpleasant happens, but it happens in a funny way.”
Born in 1968 and originally having set out to be an actor, Betts argues that performers are central to the theatre and it is his job to liberate them. It means his plays are full of meaty roles that actors can’t wait to get their teeth into. “I tend to write equal parts—no part is bigger than any other,” he says. “It’s something I do instinctively. I respect the actors. Howard Barker has put the actors back at the heart of the theatre, unlike those directors who treat them like pawns. For me, the writing serves the actors. I take the first step that allows them to be wild and free and go their own way.”
Tied in with this is his refusal to patronise an audience. He will neither underestimate them nor attempt to cater to their supposed expectations. “There’s always this pressure to second guess and presume the predilections of an audience,” he says. “I find that quite strange. I write the play for someone like me. I assume someone like me might like it. Audiences are often thought of as a homogenous mass of humanity and not simply as separate individuals who might relish the challenge of seeing something unusual, even if at first they are quite resistant to it.”