Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • THE UNCONQUERED • Stellar Quines @ Byre Theatre [tour] • 2007

Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Scotland [Wikimedia]

Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Scotland [Wikimedia]

Kicking off in St Andrews before embarking on tour to venues in Scotland and England, Stellar Quines’ latest offering is The Unconquered, an hour-and-a-half piece about the futility of revolution. The themes and execution of the play evoke memories of Theatre Modo’s Ubu, or in some ways, the Traverse’s Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 from last summer.

When revolution disrupts the lives of a rather provincial nuclear family, the parents (Jane Guernier and Kevin McMonagle) bemoan the impending loss of their status and possessions while their punky, spunky daughter (Pauline Turner) laments how, despite her belief in and excitement about the ideas of the revolutionaries, she was unable to take part. The nation’s right to self-determination is undercut by meddling outsiders and their armed forces, and a soldier from the liberating army crashes into the bombed-out home. As the family starts a slow plod toward starvation, the daughter berates her parents’ lack of action, and their cowardice in the face of their oppressors. They surrender, and she is assaulted by the soldier.

The Unconquered is the story of her defiance and the struggle both she and her mother fight to avoid their increasing victimization by the men and society around them. Ultimately, the girl has her victory – but at a disastrous cost.

There are obvious political overtones to this piece, and Betts’ language is so poetic, with its repetitions of words and phrases, that the scenes play out on a plane of hyper-reality. The ideas are deceptively simple, put together in a sort of crystallized structure where the final product has a complexity far greater than the sum of its parts. The elements of the production come together nicely, and where there is real victory here is in the marriage of Betts’ dialogue with designer Keith McIntyre’s black-ink-outline set and cut-out props. Both these create a lens whereby The Unconquered can be viewed from a direct, child-like perspective. This is a world of blacks and whites, and rights and wrongs – and although many of the conflicts are framed in uncertainty, it is a world of very few (if any) shades of grey.

It is monumentally gratifying to see a work which does not preach to its audience, which holds up a swatch of situations and propositions, and unapologetically explores each to the limits of their potential.

The piece is unflinchingly clinical, with only one or two exceptions, and while it would have been easier to sympathize with the characters if they had shown a bit more tenderness and humanity toward one another, nothing in the production makes me think the company desired for their audiences to view the characters as people rather than tropes. Even the character designations – GIRL, MOTHER, FATHER, and SOLDIER – limit the personal sense an audience member could gain from each of them.

Bett’s work is both dry and humorous, and the ideas explored by the company are engaging and important ones. The Unconquered does not exactly scale new heights of creative expression, but it does tread some familiar ground in a blunt, powerful fashion. Ultimately, it is what it is: incisive, and refreshing in the manner of a quick slap of cold water – and in this its characters and ideas are as unapologetic as one might expect.

Rachel Lynn Brody © 2007

Originally published on R&V on 18-02-07

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