We chatted to Torben Betts, writer of exciting new play, It Never Happened (or State Terror in Eight Easy Stages) which will be performed by graduating BA Acting students at ArtsEd, from 14-18 May.
The play text opens with a section from Harold Pinter’s speech, stating: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest.” What made you choose that specific speech?
TB: After I’d finished writing, and was scrabbling around for a title, somehow this speech just pinged into my head. Pinter was talking about how our compliant media gloss over the crimes of our government and those of our allies and present US/UK power as essentially benign and well intentioned. This is clearly a fallacy. The eight plays that make up It Never Happened explore how state terrorism has always been with us and how most of it, unless it’s committed by our official enemies, tends to be airbrushed from history.
It Never Happened presents a number of scenarios over a span of history, showcasing power struggles, manipulation and human weakness. How did you go about choosing these moments in history?
TB: In terms of how I chose these specific moments…like most writers I read a lot. And in every book I read there is always an event described that jumps out at me as a possible starting point for something. Most of these short plays were ideas I was thinking of developing into full-length plays but which, I believed, could also stand alone and be part of a series.
It's clear that the play is showing how our behaviour as a society and as individuals is unchanged over time. Which elements of our current climate influenced your work?
TB: Well, I’d certainly say the idea of human progress is a bit of myth. I don’t mean technological progress, progress in healthcare etc. I’m talking more about the humanist/Christian idea of the perfectibility of the species. We are essentially the same bewildered ape we’ve been since the agricultural revolution 12000 years ago, when, I contend, we started to lose our way a bit. Or when we stated losing our relationship with Nature and booted ourselves out of the Garden of Eden, so to speak. I guess the only play that “our current climate influenced” is the first one: THE FREE LIBERAL MEDIA. A lot of the characters in these plays are forced to make hard choices: hold onto your moral integrity or survive financially is one of the recurring ones. In this play an idealistic young journalist who works for a liberal media outlet wants to report truthfully on a massacre a client state of her government has just committed. Her bosses, not as free as they maintain, block her from doing this and are more interested in her covering a big royal wedding that’s about to happen. That was inspired by a current event. Or an event from 2018 anyway.
What was your process towards writing a piece for a large cast, and how did our BA Acting students influence your decisions?
TB: I think it’s a great idea that drama schools have started to commission writers to come up with plays for their students’ graduation shows. In my day (I trained as an actor) you might do a pre-existing play and some would get good parts and others would be the butler or the maid. The sole purpose of this graduation show is to put yourself in the shop window and get a decent agent, this can make the difference between a good career and one that isn’t so glittering. Luck and timing play a massive part in this profession. To write a play so that 15 or 16 actors all have enough to do is very challenging, which is why I chose to write eight short plays, giving all of the actors at least two very different parts. The students themselves didn’t really influence my decisions, although before the writing process began I held a few sessions to see if they’d be able to handle the language and style of my more theatrical work (I generally trade in dark social realism) and they could more or less and so I proceeded.
Do you believe that one of the functions of theatre is to educate, and if so, what do you think an audience will take away from this play?
TB: I never seek intentionally to educate in my writing. My starting point is “What do I know anyway? Let’s jump into this madness and find out something.” So much of our theatre seems to be messages from the so-called enlightened individuals (the writer and director and actor) to the so-called unenlightened masses. “It would be better for society if you all were aware of this.” Kind of thing. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Like all of us I have my own politics but I am well aware these are just mental positions that need a good shaking like everyone else’s. There was a certain amount of pressure on me to make these eight plays form a narrative whole which I resisted. They are all linked thematically and talk to each other on a certain level but that’s all. I am hoping they will stand on their own two feet as individual works. Some of them people will like, some of them people won’t. So rather than tell a standard narrative, where people want to come back in after the interval to find out how the story ends, I’m hoping the audience finds something in “the accumulation of moments”, as Howard Barker describes it. What I’m mainly hoping is that an agent or two might “take away” a young actor or two!
Finally, what advice would you have given to your younger self starting out in the arts?
TB: If I could travel back to the early 1990s, I’d probably find myself in some London pub, drunkenly cursing my fate along with a group of other failing actors. I’d whisper in my youthful ear: “Follow your vocation with courage and with dignity but, for God’s sake, don’t forget to live your life. Live in the now. Be patient. Go vegan. Don’t compare yourself with others. And, oh yes, ease up on the booze and narcotics.” I would no doubt tell myself to fuck off.
Book your tickets for It Never Happened now! Running from 14-18 May, 7:30pm with HALF PRICE tickets on Wednesday!