The National Joke: Torben Betts’ dark comedy ‘trapped’ by an eclipse – BBC News
With his critically-acclaimed play Invincible being translated into several languages and his recent adaptation of the iconic film Get Carter garnering great reviews, playwright Torben Betts is at “a really good moment” of his career.
But for all his recent success, Betts says “you are only as good as your last play”, which means all eyes are on The National Joke, a “tragi-comic” tale of an MP’s “very dysfunctional family who come together on the south coast of England to view a total solar eclipse”.
Betts says the idea for the play came to him while reading a book about eclipses.
“I was reading Totality, which is about total eclipses and had all the myths that have sprung up around them and what they meant to people in cultures before we understood the science.
“You are often looking for a reason to trap a group of individuals together or have them gathering together.
“So as I was reading it, I thought this would be an interesting way to frame a play.”
And he says that while it tells the story of a Tory MP on the periphery of the party, he is “not promoting a left or right-wing view”.
“A lot of my recent plays have been explorations of the left-wing and I thought I’d have a look at the other side.
“But it looks at the fact that there’s no point having these values and identifying yourself with a position when you are unable to love each other properly.
“That’s what the play looks at. There’s a definite lack of nurture and love in it.”
Ultimately though, he says the work, like “most of my plays – or even most plays full stop”, is about the “symptoms of human madness”.
“Most of us are slightly mad. The human mind is a dysfunctional entity in many ways and the system we’re forced into can make us mad and make us unable to live in the present moment and love each other properly.
“I’m trying to demonstrate this is what we’re like and there is a way to make ourselves slightly more sane. I’m trying to lay it bare and show what is going on.
“Maybe there is something beyond personalities sticking to fixed political positions, which is where the eclipse comes in – there’s this huge natural event which dwarfs all these petty squabbles that the family have and makes them put things into context.
“It’s an examination of where we are at the moment.”
Associate artistic director Henry Bell, who is helming the production of The National Joke at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, says when he read the play, he “found it really funny”.
“I was taken on a comic journey with it, which then becomes a more intense experience,,” he says.
“It wasn’t until I finished that I went ‘ah, this is actually a state of the nation play’ – that wasn’t running through my head when I was reading it.
“That was a good sign, because if you can see what the playwright is trying to do, that’s usually a sign that it’s a preachy play or an ego piece.”
He says he thought about bringing Betts’s new work to his stage because of the playwright’s history with the theatre, which he admits he used as a “carrot to dangle in front of him and say ‘it’s been a while and you’re grown – come back to what you know'”.
Betts became the theatre’s writer-in-residence in 1999 at the invitation of then-artistic director Sir Alan Ayckbourn and says it is “nice to be back”, though he finds the comparisons of their work “a bit trying”.
“Even when I’m being praised, it’s always because Alan mentored me in the correct fashion, which is slightly galling because he was just the artistic director of the theatre that put my play on.
“I’m 50 in a couple of years and in reviews, I’m still the protegee. But there can’t be that many reviews that haven’t mentioned him.
“My plays are very different to his. Some of them do cover similar landscapes – middle-class dysfunction with laughs and a bit of tragedy – but they are angrier and darker.”
Bell says the comparison “reduces how prolific Alan’s been as a writer and it does the same to Torben”.
“There’s crucial differences – Torben’s much more interested in the actual specific political landscape of this country, whereas I think Alan tends to be more universal in how he presents things.
“If you see this play, you won’t think that it’s an Alan Ayckbourn play. But the one thing I will say they have in common is that they have an ability to make the dark seem comic.
“Alan’s a master at that and Torben has that in his plays too.”
Betts admits when he’s in Scarborough, “there’s no avoiding it, so I just go with it”.
As far as he’s concerned though, he has more important things to consider, like writing his next work.
He says the burden of success “doesn’t weigh on my shoulders”, though admits “you always put a pressure on yourself to make your stuff as good as it can be”.
“I’ve been trundling along with maybe a production a year, but the last couple of years, it’s got a lot busier,” he says.
“The nice thing is that the more exposure and the more success you get, the more chance you’ve got of getting something else on.”
The National Joke is at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre until 20 August.