Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Photo/Eamonn McGoldrick

With a Seussful of allegory and a Churchill of rhythm, Torben Betts has conjured up one of the most distinct and comically unsettling shows of the season. The Unconquered gets the message across with all the subtlety of a Gorey pop-up book (grim and colorless), but the energetic bleakness of the performances make those two dimensions spring to life. Speaking of willful contradictions, the trappings of capitalism are the first to go, with Girl assailing Mother's "affectionate yet strangely passionate existence" and the "equanimity" of her routines. As Girl says, that's all "just so much . . . exhalation!" though it's important to note that the play's forceful repetitions are far more than hot air: they are the whetstone upon which the satire sharpens.

To keep things grounded, director Muriel Romanes makes a series of wise artistic choices. First, she extends the exaggeration of the text to Keith McIntyre's set: a crudely sketched pop-up house, hung from a perspective-cheating wire-frame. Next, she puts the actors in whiteface, a dehumanizing device that, when coupled with Catriona Maddocks's proper middle-class costumes, makes them into walking caricatures. Finally, with a painter's touch, she adds in Peter Vilk's gluttonous sound effects and Jeanine Davies's helicopter-like spotlight, and is able to neatly turn the wire-frame home into a gutted, chaotic mess.

With the circumstances so well established, the language is free to skirt between absurdism and realism, which is where The Unconquered makes the most of its allegorical plot. Mother and Father (Alexandra Mathie and Neil McKinven) -- two meek, materialistic fops -- watch as their daughter, Girl (Nicola Harrison) gets caught up in the consequences of a revolution that they have tried so hard to blissfully ignore. Unfortunately for them, the Free World (which "will not tolerate governments with unconventional philosophies") comes knocking on their door, a cardboard assault rifle that bears the standard of homogeneous violence. Worse, this childlike Soldier (Neal Barry), is so smitten with Girl that his determined lust turns to rape; worse still, the parents are bought off with a string of sausages and the promise of comfort. "I'm now not so concerned for the state of the world," says Father, trading in his suit for golf wear; "A good Christian man," repeats the Mother, selling herself on the soldier-cum-rapist. As for Girl, she is slowly moved backstage, behind the house's transparent back wall, where her screams to "Get out of my house" and "Get out of my country" can be better ignored.

Who said a play had to be subtle to be effective? In this case, The Unconquered makes its point best by being completely, brutally true to form: a play following in the footsteps of many nations before it.

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