The Unconquered is a gloriously absurd theatrical skewering of patriarchy, complacency and self-serving hypocrisy from writer Torben Betts and Stellar Quines theatre company. It provokes laughs, winces and thought in its portrayal of an upper middle-class family's reaction to a revolution and subsequent "re-liberation" by troops of the Free World.
Boldly declaring its unreality with an angular, hand-sketched set, the fast-paced rhythmical dialogue beguiles and hypnotises while packing a real emotional punch under the jabs, not least in the way that characters talk past rather than to one another, each absorbed in their own situations and failing to connect with those around them.
All our protagonists seem to feel trapped by a sense of their own failings; that life is elsewhere. There are points where each could break free, to a more satisfied self and relations by expressing themself, either through violence or simple acknowledgement of their emotional complexity. They desperately want to become fully realised people but are unable to liberate themselves from their societal roles, making them ciphers and foils for this fable of community, future and responsibility.
While its emotional core may be essentially domestic, the play is anything but insular. The political backdrop is as sharply drawn as the black-on-white set, for all that it remains offstage. The overthrow of monarchy and government provides a brief ecstasy of liberation and possibility that almost touches our family, through their window. However, the Father misses his salary ("oiling the wheels of my modest machine") and the mother, her comforts ("after all the system works well for most of us"). The daughter is fired up and thinks in the new republic she has found her purpose in life; except her first reaction is to stay indoors to read what it's all about.
Soon the Free World decides that democracy must be reimposed, first by bombing and then by means of ground troops, violently inserted into the country and the family's life, with consequences that I won't give away here.
The dialogue fair cracks along with lines thrown away if not for the use of mantra to convey the characters' trapped mental states. The parents keep repeating to themselves (because no-one's listening) the reasons for their inertia, then their callousness ("but what can you DO?" is one line that echoes past the curtain call). The daughter's rage goes tragically unheard; she'll grow up.
The Unconquered is a play that's funny, powerful, poetic and with sound politics. I don't do unreserved praise but this is pretty near flawless. It couldn't exist in a different medium and at just 75 minutes won't test the patience of the harshest theatre-hater. It poses questions unlike any other work I've seen and does so with a sharper intelligence than any TV drama.
So I think you should go see it! Unfortunately the play is no longer on in Glasgow but will be performed in the Highlands later this week (and New York City in May):
- Thursday 17th April, Elgin, Red Shoes Theatre
- Friday 18th April, Lochalsh, Dornie Hall.