theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Howard Brenton | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Howard Brenton
The prolific playwright has incubated his creative anger deep into his sixties
Political playwright Howard Brenton (b. 1942) is always in the process of being "rediscovered". Yet at the same time he has been at the heart of British theatrical life for the past 40 years, since his debut in 1969 with Christie in Love. True, he has spent the odd decade out of the theatrical limelight - a few years ago, he "went out of fashion" in his own phrase – and then he just happened to pen some of the liveliest scripts on television with the BBC’s spy drama series, Spooks (2002-2005).
Brenton’s play tally now amounts to 40 plays, either alone or often in collaboration – David Hare and Tariq Ali being two principal and long-standing partners. He has been satirist, conscience-pricker, general disturber of the status quo and stirrer-up of nasties in the woodshed, happily firing off sardonic exocets at the Establishment. He has been performed by the National, the RSC, the Royal Court and is a favourite in student circles but he remains determinedly independent, owner of an unsurpassed, sometimes wildly intractable, racing imagination and furious intelligence.
As a confirmed socialist, his plays - be they looking at the penal system (Christie in Love), Derby Day (Epsom Downs), the Byron and Shelley coterie (Bloody Poetry), press moguls (Pravda), the implosion of the Soviet Union (Moscow Gold), Abelard and Heloise (In Extremis), a reclamation of Harold Macmillan in Never So Good or St Paul in Paul - have consistently been concerned with the forces and pressures in society that shape, distort and sustain us.
Any resumé of Brenton’s career unfortunately must mention the ridiculous furore set off by the "obscenity" case brought by Mary Whitehouse over his play, The Romans in Britain (1980), for the National Theatre, in which parallels were drawn between the Roman invasion of Britain and England’s relationship to Ireland. Roman soldiers were seen to "rape" a Druid. In the end the prosecution fizzled out: there was no case to answer. As a sideshow, it merely serves to re-emphasise the mighty canon of work Brenton has produced over the years. Its defining characteristic, apparent in every word uttered in his conversation with theartsdesk, expresses the relish and vigour of a playwright, now in his late sixties, who continues to engage with the world with glorious irreverence and fervour. Explosions of laughter at his own and the world’s absurdity burst from him - uncontrollably, it sometimes seems.
Three plays by Brenton open within a few weeks of one another: an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s working-class classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre); a revision of his own earlier translation of Georg Bûchner’s Danton’s Death (National Theatre); and a new play, Anne Boleyn, opening at Shakespeare’s Globe, in which the second wife of Henry VIII is reframed as a religious reformer and central to the English Reformation. People are once again saying, "Howard Brenton. Ah. Where’s he been?"
CAROLE WODDIS: How do you manage to juggle several plays and plotlines in your head simultaneously?
HOWARD BRENTON: It’s strange really. You find that you’re lying to everyone. You’re saying to the National, "Yes, yes, next weekend...", and then the next weekend you're saying the same thing to the Globe. And then you're saying, "Yes, yes..." to Christopher Morahan (who had the idea to do The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.) So you’re juggling things. And I became a deadline junkie. It’s one of the medical problems you get from working for television.
It’s also like a camel train trying to cross the desert. Some of the camels make it and some don’t. As a writer, you always have lots of things on the go, trying to get them to the performance oasis. These three all got done. They’re all going on.
How long did it take you to adapt Ragged Trousered Philianthropists (Chichester production pictured right and below left)?
Off and on about six months.
How did it come about, were you commissioned?
Christopher Morahan is a director and back in the Sixties and Seventies he was head of BBC drama. He did a television version of the book. He’s always wanted to do a theatre adaptation. Chichester [Festival Theatre] approached him and said, "Have you got anything you’d like to do?" And he said, "Yes, I’ll do the Tressell." Then he approached me to do the adaptation. I’ve always loved the book. I read it in my teens.
How did you start? What were you going for in the adaptation?
I read the book and put it down and said, "What are the things I remember from it?" I did the first draft like that. Then Chrisotpher said, "But you’ve left out so and so and so and so." So I went and read the book twice more, and did the second draft which was radically different from the first. It’s a way of easing your way into it. There are so many wonderful episodes in the book, just couldn’t get it all in. I had to try and develop some of the spine arguments of the book.
Do you think it has relevance now?
It’s strange, because everything in the book is from a different world. People earned seven pence an hour. Yet nothing has changed. The relationship between bosses and workers, the predicament of the workers in the play is the same as the predicament the workers are in now. Only recently in the news there was talk that people should just leave their homes and move to find work. That’s very much the world of this play.
What’s the period?
1904. At least, I set it in 1904. The book was written between 1905-04 when Tressell was working in Hastings. He kept writing it right up until to 1910/11.
It’s really the Edwardian twilight before everything exploded in the First World War.
Yes, but it’s also a time of birth because the Labour movement is finally getting its political voice together. The Labour Party had split between the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Party that gave birth to the Labour Party we know now. Also on the left, there were parties which were, although we didn’t realise it, what we would call Leninist. They were revolutionary and they believed in a tightly controlled centrally-driven party. That split in the left was already there, in pubs, in Hastings in 1904. The arguments that were to take 90 years to work out had begun.
There’s an anguish in the book for us and in the play about the two strands of the left. The revolutionary left ended finally in the death of Lenin, the expulsion of Trotsky from Russia, Stalin, millions dead, and collapse and agony into the senile state. The other strand, the parliamentary social democracy strand, has ended with the disgrace of the Blair and Brown years where socialism wasn’t even allowed to be mentioned within Labour Party discourses and statements, at all. The left is a rubble field in which things are going to have to start to be grown again. That’s why I put in a very short final scene, set in our time, of people buying this house which was renovated 100 years ago.
It ends on a hopeful note, then?
I wouldn’t say hopeful. The show ends, following Tressell, with something determined.
That brings us neatly onto Danton’s Death (Toby Stephens pictured below right). I’ve heard it mentioned that you find it a paradoxical play, that although it is about friends killing friends and the Terror it ends in a sense of the project being worthwhile?
Well, the play was written by a revolutionary. He was 21 when he wrote it, a medical student, quite brilliant. But he got involved with a revolutionary group in support of an abortive uprising of students in Frankfurt in 1830. Although it was put down, brutally, by the military, it encouraged many others. Among them the young Georg Bûchner, who wrote a very brilliant pamphlet on an illegal press and went out to distribute it among the peasantry who, of course, didn’t take kindly, as peasants don’t, to young intellectuals distributing leaflets encouraging them to revolt. They promptly handed him over to the police. Bûchner had to go on the run. He went back to his father’s house and wrote the play while being continually interrogated by the police. When he’d finished, he fled to France. A month later, warrants were issued for his arrest.
So we have a play written under incredible pressure. The taste of that comes off the stage, the fear and paranoia of the revolutionary leaders at the height of the Terror. That comes, I think, from the predicament of the young author. The paradox is in the beauty of the writing. The drama, in some way, gives you hope and does make you feel this was a tragedy, that a worthwhile enterprise for the good of humanity ended this way. And it’s not over yet. That’s what the feeling is at the end. When you look back through the text, you can’t really find that anywhere except perhaps in Danton’s regret.
Why have you found it necessary to make new changes since your first 1982 version of the play?
Nicky Wright, who’s a fellow playwright and was Literary Manager at the National Theatre for some years, said he thinks that translations have a shelf life of about 10 years and that’s sort of true.
Did you feel that?
Yes, I did, when I read it I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I couldn’t believe the audience had sat through it. I think a shift has happened in the last 30 years.
In the way we speak?
No, in the way people perceive classics. I think they were much more tolerant in saying, "Ah, this is a German classic. And the fact we don’t understand anything for thirty minutes..."
Were prepared to listen...
Audiences don’t want "library" theatre. They want plays to live, that night, for them. And they’re right. Their tolerance is lower of great German plays perhaps. But I think it’s a good thing.
You’ve written for the Globe before, haven’t you?
Yes, though my first play [In Extremis] wasn’t written for the Globe. I rewrote it a little. It was originally done for students in the United States. At the University of California. Sartre said that there are three kinds of writers: writers who write for God, writers who write for themselves and writers who write for other people. I’m a writer who writes for other people because I’m a playwright. If there aren’t other people to entertain or to deliver a play to then it doesn’t exist. You’re always setting up a theatre in your head where you’re trying to make your writing work for unknown strangers.
In the case of your new play, Anne Boleyn, what came first, the idea or the image?
It was [the Protestant William] Tyndale’s book, the idea of a book hidden at Court. It was a very dangerous book called The Obedience of a Christian Man. Doesn’t sound very dangerous. But it was the hottest book of the Reformation. [Cardinal] Wolsey was burning Tyndale’s books, The Obedience and his [translation of the New] Testament, in St Paul's Churchyard. Anne Boleyn, I was amazed to discover, owned both. Indeed she gave The Obedience to the King [Henry VIII] with passages underlined saying, "This is of interest."
This book holds the key to the settlement of the Church of England; it has theological scriptural justification for the English Reformation. In other words, she was at the centre of the most dangerous ideas and at the centre of the movement of her time. I found that interesting, that this woman who is usually portrayed as a sexual predator or a flibberty-gibbet or a pawn for her family’s benefit, was a religious reformer. I tried to make sense of that.
Where did you find all that information? Were you researching around?
Yes, I’d been trying to write a play about the Tudors but couldn’t find a way of doing it. I had a crazy idea of having all the Tudor monarchs performed by the same actor or actress in one evening, which meant that, on and off, I’d read a lot about them and thought a lot about them. And then serendipity. Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director at the Globe, asked me to write a play celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of King James’s bible.
I thought, "This is interesting", because the King James book is over 80 per cent based on Tyndale and has subtle changes in it to make it more Establishment and worthy. In Anne Boleyn, we see the consequences of the Reformation she kicked off being handled by James who becomes obsessed with her - as much as the author! - and tries to summon her ghost up. In his cups, he succeeds. (Brenton chortles).
You had fun writing this?
Yes, it was great fun. I love them both. I began to think that she was a real heroine leading an incredibly dangerous and reckless life at an incredibly dangerous court where anyone who gets to the centre of power round Henry has incredible success. Everything is open to them until they make a mistake and then the King notices. He was a very strange man, curiously inactive and then would go 180 degrees against you if you screwed up badly and you’d find yourself out. And he would regret. He regretted getting rid of [Thomas] Cromwell quickly because Cromwell fell after Anne by a few years.
He was, because Anne and he were in cahoots together, trying to get the King to go towards the Protestant position. Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell is very brilliant and I sort of know where she’s coming from because I come from the same place. The man’s an arriviste, he’s lower middle class. His father’s a blacksmith. Yet he becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom.
What gives you the most pleasure? Is it doing an adaptation, revisiting an old one or doing a new play?
Oh, writing a new play. But doing an adaptation or a version of a classic is wonderful to craft. Adapting a book is a bit more of a mixture of crafting and playwriting because you have to get a 700-page book into a 90-page stage script. Doing the Bûchner or Brecht that I’ve done, or Goethe – I did Faust for the RSC in the Nineties – is a great education because you get inside the engine room of a great book and you begin to understand, moment by moment, how it’s working.
Looking at the last three plays, Paul, In Extremis, and now Anne Boleyn, they all have a theme of religion and a theme of history. Are you more interested now in pure history but bouncing that against being a dramatist and making things live on stage?
History plays are not exactly parables but you can show the workings of society more clearly in some way, and hope that there’s a resonance. In other words, your own obsession with, for example, the Tudors, you follow that. Then you find the resonances in it are of our time; religion is killing people at the moment.
It’s a way of addressing first and last things in a way that you can’t in a satire or modern play, like death and the great clashes in society between poverty and the rich. It’s a thing of getting older
In the period of ten years when you were not so actively writing for the theatre – though you actually wrote four or five plays with Tariq Ali - people will look back on that period and say, "Howard Brenton, ah Spooks." You wrote 14 episodes didn’t you?
In writing Anne Boleyn (Miranda Raison pictured right, image by Manuel Harlan), did that experience, of writing for television, inform or influence the way you wrote it?
Yes, there is a technical thing. It made me speed up and go faster with the scenes and that Shakespearean thing which is go in as late as you can and get out as early as you can. When you write for the Globe it’s really one long scene or, two long scenes with an interval between them. There’s no gap. It has to flow, the consequences have to be immediately obvious. Also you can go round the pillar and say, five years later and it is five years later. It’s almost as if the Globe is an experimental street theatre. Television certainly informed that. I also like writing about spies. And Henry’s court was stuffed with them. There’s so much I would love to have got into with the Spanish Ambassador. But there’s a limit to what you can get on in two and a half hours.
In Extremis certainly flowed. Experiencing that play at the Globe was thrilling. The intellectual rigour of it as well as the jokes...
Jokes often come from concentrated writing. I mean what terrifies you is boring an audience. I have done that in the past. I did that with my very first play. I won’t tell you, I won’t even say the name. I’ve destroyed all copies. It was just unbelievably bad. So the next play I wrote I was so frightened of that happening again I didn’t realise I’d written a funny play until it was performed. And then the audience were falling about. It’s because I’ve learnt concision.
Do you find it easier writing for theatre or television?
Theatre is incredibly difficult. You daren’t bore the audience. In television they chop up storylines. They try and mystify you every 15 minutes by showing disparate scenes that don’t make any sense at all. You couldn’t do that in the theatre, they’d leave.
They do at the Globe, if they don’t like what they see.
Yes, they’re off. They say, "Let’s go and have a beer and come back in 20 minutes and maybe it will have improved" (laughs). Whereas if you’re stuck in the Lyttelton theatre, say, you’ve got 20 people to the left, 20 to the right, everyone’s going to have to stand up. You’re locked in.
Looking back over your career, you’ve written several plays with David Hare. Lay By in 1971, England’s Ireland in 1972, Brassneck in 1973, Deeds in 1978. With your best known and probably most successful, Pravda (1985), do you think you were prescient in what you saw about the British press?
Not prescient enough. We couldn’t have foreseen the satellite development. There was a joke in the play, when a cricketer comes on dressed in ludicrously bright cricket gear and the audience fell about in 1985. Watching England-Australia the other day, there were Lambert LeRoux colours all over the place.
What made you and Hare start on that particular subject?
Well, it’s how collaborations work, we both wanted to see a show about something but no one has written it. And you feel, "I can’t really do this myself."
You’d worked with Hare before with Portable Theatre in 1969.
Yes, so we said, "Let’s do it together." We did, very quickly. Shows are best done quickly.
How long did it take to write?
The first draft took three weeks. We rented a flat in Brighton. We’d meet and stay two or three nights a week in this flat and work like crazy and then leave. I don’t know what people around thought.
A bit like The Odd Couple!
And we played a very silly and sinister game. We began assuming Irish accents. But then they IRA bombed the Grand Hotel. So we stopped doing that. Schoolboy joke. I remember we went down to look at it one night after we’d been writing all day, at this incredible sight. The front of the hotel split.
What were your feelings at that time?
You had the idea anything could happen which we hadn’t felt for some time. That’s the feeling you had in the late Sixties. The world could change around you, for good or for bad in a way that you can’t really foretell. It was ’84 when we were writing Pravda, it went on in ’85.
In the 1960s I was living in the States and so I encountered a lot of anti-Vietnam people. I came out of my middle-class shell then but the question was, would you go to the barricades, Carole, would you shoot someone? And I know that at that time, there was just no way I could do that. Did you ever have a moment like that?
Well, yes, there was a horrible psycho-drama on the left which I eventually wrote a play about to get rid of in myself, called Magnificence, 1973, at the Royal Court. That was the psycho-drama of the libertarian left, the hippy libertarian left which had gone terrorist really, with the angry Brigade and the Baader Meinhof, more seriously, in Germany. I tried to play it out there because you did feel tormented; the stupid question, would you kill someone for what you believe in or not? If the answer is no, then you’re not a real leftist. Incredible state of mind to get into.
I know a lot of Maoists did, particularly in Germany. Appalling, that you had to prove your purity. Middle-class kids enmeshed in this psycho-drama. It’s what happened to the counter-culture, extra-parliamentary left as it disintegrated in the Seventies and Eighties.
You sound quite critical?
It was a fantasy that killed a few people and blew away something which was peaceful and fine. There was a group of intellectuals, they were Belgian actually, Guy Debord led them, they were called the Situationists who the Sex Pistols liked, oddly. The Situationsts' theory is that public life is arranged but no one really lives in it. Society is a spectacle, it’s a system, a series of images that no one actually lives.
The term I’m searching for is printed circuit which is an old image, a pre-chip image. Society’s like a printed circuit. For it to work you can only go around in those circuits and so everyone swears to, say, the monarchy. But actually no one believes in it. Or everyone swears to the Church of England, but no one actually believes in it. And everyone believes in democracy. You have to say that, but no one lives it. The way life itself is lived is completely different. Society of the spectacle is oppressive. It’s like a giant billboard under which we say, "Ah yes, there we are, life is perfect, everyone wears jeans, everyone has that size bust and waist, that colour skin, that beautiful skin." That’s the society of spectacle, the advertising. No one lives in the advertising world. We all live in a much scruffier, more complex world.
I thought that was a brilliant analysis. I’ve used it in plays, to disrupt the spectacle. How? Go and shoot an American general in a base in Germany! That’s what. That leap was made by the young terrorists of that time.
So how would you describe what’s happening now when things are actually carried through and you get 9/11; that’s disrupting the spectacle in no uncertain terms, isn’t it?
No, that’s serious. That’s an attack on the West by people who want basically the fall of Saudia Arabia. I’m not a politician so my insights are not necessarily better than anyone else. But it’s about Saudia Arabia. Perhaps there’s an element of the society as spectacle. No one can actually say this is about Saudia Arabia. Until Saudia Arabia is sorted out, problems with Islam’s aggression towards the West will continue.
As well as disrupting the spectacle, you like to disrupt myths, don’t you?
Yes, I find it very, very interesting. The Tudors were fantastic at it [myth-making]. I have a little bit in Anne Boleyn, because they were bandits really. They’d taken over the country by force of arms. They had no legitimate claim to the throne. They had to erect a state that was believable so they used pomp and circumstance and glory and patronage. Everything looked different and fabulous and you had to be a part of it or you were out. Or dead. I’m very interested in that. But actually, underneath it, something else is going on.
And that was?
Power struggle. The establishment of a regime who founded us really. We’re their heirs.
In another interview about The Romans in Britain (pictured below left), you said we are their heirs because we were the ones who ran away. You were referring to the Celts.
Yes. We’re still basically Celts. Since I wrote the play, genetics have shown that the white population, born in this country are basically Celtic in their genes which has shot a lot of scholarship to bits.
That leads us neatly into your beginnings; you were born in Hampshire?
I was born in Portsmouth. My parents weren’t living in Portsmouth. They were visiting. I came early and fortunately my aunt was a midwife, so she delivered me.
You were brought up in Hampshire?
No I was brought up in Sussex, Bognor Regis until I was 17/18.
What did that feel like, living in Bognor Regis?
It was an idyll. My childhood was an idyll.
In what sense?
You were free; there was the seaside, the beach, you could cycle up into the Downs. It’s a very beautiful part of the world. My parents didn’t have much money. We lived in a council house.
Your father was a Methodist preacher?
No, he was a policeman until he was 50 and then he resigned. My father was a hopeless policeman. He hated it. He only joined the police because it was a time of unemployment in the Thirties. He never got promoted, he was a constable all his life. He was always religious and he decided to become a Methodist minister when he was 50. So he left the police and put the frock on. We then went madly around the country because Methodist ministers are moved around.
Do you think you inherited a certain dissidence from him? What do you put your own dissidence down to?
I don’t know really...
Do you see yourself as a dissident?
I find it very hard to believe in certain things, to take certain things. I find it very hard listening to judges, to believe a word they say. I find it hard to see any point in Prince Charles. And certain tones when you hear prime ministers, whether I vote for them or not. They are certain tones in public that you know are false.
And archbishops. And Thought for the Day. That sanctimonious tone. It’s so damn English and you know it’s false. They’re all manipulating the spectacle; they’re creatures of the spectacle. And in a way, they know no one believes a word they say. I just don’t feel a part of it somehow. Never have.
Would you call yourself an anarchist?
No. You always have to make it clear. Having certain political views of the world, doesn’t necessarily make you wise because you’re a playwright. The plays may be wise despite myself. The opinions of Dostoyevsky were horrendous; he was an appalling pamphleteer. Two dimensional, nationalistic, anti-semitic. The lot. And yet when Dostoyevsky begins, this golden novel writing zooms off the page. Despite himself and despite what he believes in. You’ve always got to be terribly careful of that.
It’s true of many writers, isn’t it.
I think it is. And you can mess things up. I always think Shaw lost his mind, lost his way when he began to believe he was an oracle.
Just to go back. You get to Cambridge. What did you read at Cambridge?
And did you always want to write, where did that come from?
I was already writing plays at school. I wrote a play in the sixth form, A Life of Hitler, which has never been done, completely unperformable.
Did you always see yourself as a playwright, then?
Well, as well as being a religious policeman, my father was also an amateur theatre producer. The local am-dram. I copied him and the way he bound the Samuel French books in brown paper. I wrote my own play and got my friends to do it, based on a comic strip in The Eagle comic paper. So, yes, it’s always been an obsession.
Maybe drama and theatre has always been in you because preaching and going into the pulpit is the essence of theatre, isn’t it?
No, it’s not, no. The essence of theatre is three people, at least two, probably three people in the pulpit, none of whom agree with each other. Then you’ve got theatre. As in Anne Boleyn. When you’ve got Dean Andrews and Reynolds arguing about should there be altar-rails or not, that’s theatre. But Andrews preaching at you about how there should be altar-rails is not theatre, its demagogy.
Your play, Paul (2005, Adam Godley pictured right, image by Catherine Ashmore), was a wonderful exploration of belief and faith under pressure or where belief comes under pressure. Do you feel these past few years that you’ve been exploring religion?
I’m a convinced atheist. But because I came from a religious household I’ve always been fascinated by religion. The person who’s most influenced me really is Jean Paul Sartre. When I was very young, about 15, I found a slim volume stuffed out of place in a school library called Existentialism and Humanism. A 40-page essay that he wrote where he was asked to explain what is Existentialism. And he does it in the clearest, crystalline way. It blew me to smithereens. I thought, "This is what we live. This is what it’s like to wake up. This is what being aware is like." He describes it, he knows what it is. And so I then became a fan of Sartre and have been off and on, well always on really. Brilliant novels and also a great playwright.
He’s been pulled apart a bit in recent times, hasn’t he?
Yes, he was bonkers, he was off the wall in many ways, his Maoism and that Greek lover of his. An extraordinary menagerie. He was a very Mandarin-like man but I think a wonderful man who had a terrific sense of humour about himself.
Going back to your time as a young graduate, coming out of Cambridge, you went and joined the fringe group, The Brighton Combination, with Noel Greig, Jenny Harris and Ruth Marks.
No, after I left Cambridge, I became a stage manager for a year in weekly rep. I had the idea I must learn about the theatre.
Did it teach you much?
Yes it did, an enormous amount, the bottom of the profession, how people survived it. While there I wrote a play which the Royal Court did for one performance. It was a one act play called It’s My Criminal and it was dreadful. I had no money. I was walking to the theatre and sleeping on someone’s floor. But the Royal Court gave me a job backstage as a stagehand, working the flies because I had some theatre experience. And then Bill Gaskill [artistic director of the Royal Court] got me a job working in an office and commissioned a play. Two years later they put it on. The play was Revenge in the Theatre Upstairs and that was it really. From then I was able to earn a living as a playwright.
It’s that extraordinary thing of the Royal Court, the play they put on wasn’t much of a success but for some reason they thought I could write. It was Bill Gaskill really. And look, I was from the sticks, I was lower middle class – 24/5 years old.
They put their faith in you.
And I was tongue-tied. It was a very gay world at that time, the Royal Court, a very sophisticated London theatre full of people who seemed to have minds like razor blades. I felt completely out of place. But they helped me. It sounds sentimental but I have never experienced theatre bitchiness or luvvieness. I’m always cross when the theatre is characterised as a load of luvvies. I’ve had nothing but kindness and help, right along the line, up to Nick Hytner [artistic director of the National Theatre].
Looking back at the late Sixties, early Seventies, how would you sum up those years? Were they exciting?
Yes they were; we were inventing our theatre. We created something called the Fringe, a new way of writing, post-Osborne. Epic, political theatre. We called ourselves neo-Jacobeans, mixed up different styles of writing, verse and prose, reclaimed that kind of generous, wide theatre, not set in rooms, set in the outdoors, many-scened. That’s the drive we were on really. Me, David, Trevor Griffiths, Caryl Churchill, Snoo Wilson and lots of others, David Edgar, though he was rather younger. All different. Trevor was older than any of us. But we knew each other very well, we collaborated together, we were driving companies together, we were running them.
Was it a coincidence that you were all probably on the left, socialists?
No, you naturally attract each other.
But also you wanted to change British society as well, you were anatomists, weren’t you, and satirists?
Oh yes. And we remained like that. That remained the drive, that theatre is entertainment but the aim is to change the world through fun. It’s a hopeless undertaking. It’s an absolutely doomed and hopeless undertaking but we still believe in it. David still believes in it. The Power of Yes [by David Hare] is still to engage with changing the world through prickly entertainment. We haven’t changed in that way.
Do you think our generation failed?
Well, yes but the Left has gone into crisis. The crisis finally came in 1989 and the Nineties. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late Eighties I went to the Soviet Union twice and the first time I went, I thought, "My god, they’re going to reform and everything we’ve talked about is actually going to come out of this reformation." Three years later when I went back, the year before Gorbachev fell, it was imploding. Horrible, horrible atmosphere. And all the people I met on the first visit were in despair. One was on the way to becoming buddhist, a great party member, actually ended up in India in a monastery. I mean, come on!
So yes, you can’t say we failed with our little Portable theatre and our few plays on at the National and the Royal Court. It wasn’t our failure. It was part of the general difficulty the left has had or the History that happened. I don’t talk about it usually, because I don’t want to talk to my sons about the Sixties. It was awful already in the Seventies when I went to give a talk to university students and I had to remind myself they were 10 in 1968; not another old fart going on about the Sixties. I thought: "You’ve got to move on, you’ve got to re-invent yourself, you’ve got to somehow keep engaged with the world as it is."
Some commentators are now lambasting that period...
But the right always has to keep that down. They always have to keep that spirit down. They have to do it again and again. Even when they’re in power. In fact, when they’re in power they get more and more vituperative about the ideas that Tressell called the Commonwealth.
Moving on, Paul and The Romans in Britain were both controversial. I’m bound to ask whether you enjoy creating a controversy?
I don’t set out to do that. But as a writer you naturally gravitate to the hottest place. You can’t stop it. What writer can resist ? The fault line is where the drama is. That fault line, 25 years ago, was Ireland, The Troubles; that was the fault line running right through British society.
What was the fault line with Paul, then?
Oh Islam. I wanted to write about fundamentalism, how you believe something so much that you go to your death for it. I can’t write a play about a young suicide bomber. How can I? I don’t know the culture. I find it rather offensive to the people who died and also to the people who killed themselves. I couldn’t do that. But with a history play you can go to the source - the source of our culture, Pauline, and the ambiguity of it. Because the man was a great moralist who founded something which was crucial to us really, the idea of love and personal relationship to the world. He called it God. That’s how you use the history play. It’s not a manoeuvre. It’s an instinct to do it. And of course I knew it because I see so many echoes.
You obviously enjoyed writing with David Hare? Was it a conscious decision to go in different directions?
No, not really.
Are you still friends?
Oh yes, very much so. I mean, we’re not close friends. But we’re always in touch. And watch each other’s backs. I’m very indebted to him, with Portable Theatre, Christie in Love that he directed. He also directed Weapons of Happiness, my first play at the National and we did those two plays together, Brassneck and Pravda. We wanted to do a third, a play about Richard Nixon because we were both fascinated by him. Then we realised that actually it was Lambert Le Roux (Roger Allam as Le Roux in 2006 Chichester revival, pictured below) who fixated us. Nixon was like Lambert Le Roux who fell.
Nixon was a fascinating character. He was a horrible politician. I mean he ruined people’s lives. He was unscrupulous and a congenital liar. He couldn’t tell the truth about anything. An interviewer would ask him, when were you born and he’d name the wrong year instinctively. Tthere was something in him that couldn’t, wouldn’t tell people the truth about himself and no one really knows what that is.
I remember there was a book by an American psychologist called Fawn M Brodie, a very good biography of Nixon and her theory was that his younger brother, who died in a playground or schoolyard, it was Nixon who threw the stone. In other words, he killed his younger brother and so he was suffering from a Cain-like secret all his life which is an extraordinary idea. If you believe in psycho-babble explanations of life it’s quite an interesting one.
Nixon was very nearly a great man in many ways. He was very socially aware. He had early green policies that later Presidents wrecked. He was almost a Social Democrat and although it was an eye to the main chance, realpolitik, the attempt to engage with China was incredibly important. Then he bombed Cambodia. And did the stupid thing with Watergate, an election he was going to win by miles anyway. Something just tipped over.
When Richard [Eyre] was running the National Theatre, there was a lot of discussion about David and I writing another play. He tried to encourage us to write one about the BBC. We had several lunches with people whose careers have been ruined by the BBC. And then we thought, "God, three hours in the Olivier Theatre with John Birt in the middle of the stage." The will to write, let alone the will to live, we lost it... so it came to nothing. And then the National sent the bill for the lunches we’d had from the BBC dissidents. We paid them and since then we’ve gone off to do our own things.
Finally, if we were to look at your career graph, it doesn’t seem to me to fall into any particular pattern. There was the early fringe work, you did have a time with the RSC; you did Sore Throats (1978) and Thirteenth Night (1981) but you didn’t necessarily become associated with the RSC?
Well, they revived The Churchill Play twice (1974 originally, Nottingham Playhouse; RSC 1974, 1988), they revived it at Stratford and then at the Barbican. I wrote two plays for them and they were very good when The Romans in Britain controversy began. Peter Hall said, "While this is on never, never dine out on it. Get on with work." So I wrote Thirteenth Night which the RSC put on around that time. I remember the first preview happened the night before [Michael] Bogdanov [the director of The Romans in Britain who was being prosecuted] was appearing in the magistrates court. I remember sitting there with all the press pressing against the window and Michael turning and saying, "How’s your preview?" Surreal experience. (laughs).
What was it about, Thirteenth Night?
It was a re-write of Macbeth no less, about a Labour Party Prime Minister in an imaginary Britain who turns into Stalin.
And then you joined Foco Novo [theatre company] and did Sleeping Policeman (1983) and Bloody Poetry (1984), wonderful play.
Yes, it gets done a lot. But it’s odd, the Eighties. I suppose because you’d got experience by then; you knew you were in opposition. You knew you had to hang on and make the subsidised theatre work as hard as you could because it would be under threat. And indeed Foco Novo was axed along with other left-wing groups in ‘87. [John] McGrath’s 7:84 was axed in that same round.
Yes, it was known as the Night of Long Knives.
Yeah, and oddly, the Eighties were an extremely rich and fertile time for me. They were for David, too. For a lot of us. Caryl Churchill did work which put the finger on the age, really. That went on through the Eighties really. To me the divide is the Nineties really. It kicked off well enough but then I had difficulty because I wrote two plays I couldn’t get on and I fell to endless writing and rewriting, a play called One Once which was commissioned by Deutsches Theater in Berlin.
It went through five different radically different versions. People just threw up their hands in despair when they read it. Mark Rylance asked me to do a version here. I did an entirely new one and he said, "What on earth is this?" It happens with plays. I’ve got another in my bag which is going through the same process, where you write a play that is incoherent. You can’t make sense of it. And you don’t know why you are doing it. One Once took months and months and months, as the Halifax was emptying and emptying. It went on and on. And got nowhere really.
I had another play called Doctor Love that Peter [Hall] was going to do with Dominic Dromgoole directing it at the Old Vic. Then his company went bankrupt. I’d waited a year for him to do it. Then the play was... its age was over. So it was a difficult time, the Nineties. Sort of out of fashion.
Were you relieved when somebody came to you about Spooks (pictured right). Who came to you?
Jane Featherstone. I’d written a play for RADA which was directed by the man who ran Foco Novo, Roland Rees. Jane saw it or heard about it and called or got a script off my agent. There was a scene with an MI5 man in it and she said would I write an episode for this series that they were planning; it hadn’t been green lit. So I wrote that and ended up writing half the first series (laughs). It was just terrific.
Was it a learning curve for you?
Yes, and I loved it. What I loved was that they were all young; they didn’t know who you were; they had no interest in your area of work. They didn’t care if you were some old leftie. They were a terrifc company. Still are.
What was the company?
Kudos. Then the noughties began. It does feel very much like several patches. But the one thing about One Once which I must finish. When my elder son (I’ve got two sons) read Paul, he said, "You’ve written One Once", which was about a man cut in half, based on a Calvino short story. He said "Paul’s that figure. You’ve done, that’s it." And I said, "My God, that’s right." Isn’t that strange? And I think that happens. I’ve got another play that has been going on and on with different versions. And I know in the end something like that will happen.
You talk in terms of there being some process going on inside that even the writer knows not of.
That’s true. It’s why they used to believe in the muse. Or why you say, "I couldn’t get that scene out." You say, "Out of what? It doesn’t exist." Or you say, "I messed that scene." Well it’s just a mess. There’s nothing. It’s as if there is some platonic... as if the play already exists. And somehow you’ve got to transcribe it in a way that’s not too distorted. Every writer has this, I think. And at times you have a sense, when it’s really going, you almost don’t remember writing the scene or words. It’s weird stuff. It’s not worth thinking about too much because you could get... it’s why some writers turn horribly mystic.
It’s like touching the electric fence and it’s too dangerous to do that...
Yeah, it’s built in the nervous system. You go to bed at night not knowing how to finish the scene and you wake up and you finish it. You’ve been writing it in your sleep. And that happens, again and again.
Are we in dangerous times now, in terms of theatre...?
They’re full, they’re packed, people love them. There’s a whole new generation of writers coming through.
But we’re going to be living through austerity times, cuts are coming...
People will re-invent in some way. I mean there wasn’t a theatre that would put any of our work on so we invented the Fringe. They will invent. Good artists are always opportunists. I’m optimistic because the audiences are there and the younger writers have their younger audiences.
If you were looking back at your younger self now, how would you describe him?
I can’t do that, I am him. Come on, we all have the eternal teenager. Life is a cubist painting for the person who’s living it; everything’s enfolded in on everything else. The echoes go back and forward in the head, or themes do.
So the young firebrand of the early twenties is still there?
Yes, the angina within is the young writer, I think.
You don’t notice any slowing up?
No, I don’t. I mean I’ve got osteoarthritis and one knee is metal. The other is to be metalled as well. But that’s physical. I may be speeding towards disorderly writing in extreme old age. My mother is 99! Who would put a play on by a 99-year-old playwright? (laughs) I mean it would be great to think what it would be like. You’d have to write beyond Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. The 85-year-old writer dies in the arms of a 25-year-old nurse, in an avalanche. I suppose I’ve got plays like that to come.
- Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare's Globe to 21 August
- The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at Chichester Festival to 26 August
- Danton's Death in rep at the National Theatre
- Listen to Howard Brenton audio interview about The Romans
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