Muriel Romanes’ production of Torben Betts’ new play, “The Unconquered,” seemingly offers everything you would hope to find in a progressive piece of theater: The style rejects realism in favor of cartoon-like expressionism; the language is rich and demanding; the performances are intense; the design is artistic; and the subject matter suggests political urgency. Sadly, however, the whole somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
British writer Betts’ work divides into two seemingly contradictory styles. He has produced lightweight bourgeois dramas such as “A Listening Heaven,” and also is responsible for plays of poetic ambition like “Incinerator.” He is surely the only dramatist to have been compared both to Alan Ayckbourn, the master of the middle-brow domestic comedy, and Howard Barker, the singular exponent of a highly-charged theater that prefers complexity to easy answers.
“The Unconquered” falls into the latter category. The setting is a parallel Britain where there has been a people’s revolt. With the country in political turmoil, a suburban family — including a teenage daughter (Pauline Turner), who is a self-styled radical, and parents (Jane Guernier, Kevin McMonagle), who are concerned about property values — teadfastly refuses to engage with the changes afoot.
As a counter revolution ferments, a soldier (Nigel Barrett), who had stormed into the family’s suburban home and raped the daughter, returns to the house transformed into a zealous advocate of the old capitalist order. While the daughter’s belly swells with the soldier’s child, her family embraces free-market values in a spirit as vicious as the war.
Behind the play’s comic-strip energy lies a dispiriting cynicism about humanity’s chances of creating a better world. Betts tells this story in a style which, like Barker, wastes no time on conversational niceties, except perhaps to parody the inane linguistic clutter of our lives.
For one extended sequence, McMonagle as the father repeats the phrase “I adore data entry” so often it takes on the abstract quality of a musical score. Throughout, the dialogue is brisk, direct and punchy; the characters expound far more than they interact.
The approach is amplified by director Romanes, who draws out breathless performances from the four actors, rattling out the dialogue at breakneck speed. Dressed in black and white (until the counter revolution when splashes of red start to appear), they are not rounded characters but distillations of their key impulses, driven to extremes by their new circumstances.
Their cartoon intensity is matched by Keith McIntyre’s monochrome design. Lighting designer Jeanine Davies adds to the gothic drama with her low-level illumination, throwing shadows (rather too many) across the stage.
The dialogue puts almost as many demands on the audience as the actors, yet has a drive and color that makes viewers want to pay attention. To do so is rewarding, not least because of the vigor of the acting.
But in the end, the cartoon exaggeration makes it too easy to feel that none of this has anything to do with the world today. The knotty political dilemma leaves auds with a feeling of distance — as much bemused as amused.