Howard Brenton

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Plays by Howard Brenton

55 Days

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's 55 Days is a historical drama set at the culmination of the English Civil War when the future, not only of the King, but of the nation itself is decided. The play was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 18 October 2012.

The play's action begins in December 1648. The Army has occupied London. Parliament votes not to put the imprisoned King on trial, so the Army moves against Westminster in the first and only military coup in English history. What follows over the next fifty-five days, as Oliver Cromwell seeks to compromise with a king who will do no such thing, is nothing less than the forging of a new nation.

The Hampstead Theatre premiere was directed by Howard Davies, with Mark Gatiss as King Charles, Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell, Gerald Kyd as John Lilburne and Simon Kunz as Lord Fairfax. The production was generally well received by the critics, with The Guardian applauding its 'fervent dramatic power' and the Evening Standard noting that 'It could have been a dour history lesson. Instead it engages with the present, raising some pungent questions about the kind of democracy we have in Britain today.'

In an article describing the play's genesis (published at http://nickhernbooksblog.com/2012/10/25/howard-brenton-a-forgotten-revolution-the-historical-context-to-55-days/), Brenton wrote: 'Recently I met a Frenchman in London and we fell to talking about the high drama of the climax of the French Revolution: the struggle between Danton and Robespierre. "In this country you don’t remember you also had a revolution," he said, adding, rather waspishly, "and you don’t realise you still live with the consequences". He was right. The heroic, horrific story of our revolution, the Civil War that began in 1642 and resulted in the execution of King Charles I in 1649, is not part of our national consciousness.'

#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is about the detainment and interrogation of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authorities in 2011. The play, which is based on Ai Weiwei’s own account in Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man (first published March 2013), was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 11 April 2013.

On 3 April 2011, as he was boarding a flight to Taipei, Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Airport. Advised merely that his travel ‘could damage state security’, he was escorted to a van by officials, after which he disappeared for eighty-one days. The play depicts the story of his detention and the relationships he develops with his captors. It is a portrait of the artist in extreme conditions and also an affirmation of the centrality of art and freedom of speech in civilised society.

The Hampstead Theatre premiere was directed by James Macdonald with Benedict Wong in the title role.

One of the performances at Hampstead Theatre – the one on Friday 19 April – was live-streamed over the internet for a worldwide audience to watch for free. Ai Weiwei, in a comment posted on Hampstead Theatre's website on 10 April 2013 (accessible here: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/news/2013/04/aiww-the-arrest-of-ai-weiwei-to-be-live-streamed-across-the-world/), said: ‘China is a society that forbids any flow of the information and freedom of speech. This is on record, so everybody should know this. I am delighted that #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei will be livestreamed to the world. It will bring the play’s themes of art and society, freedom of speech and openness, the individual and the state to a new, broad and receptive global audience. Without freedom of speech there is no modern world – just a barbaric one. I’d like to thank my close friend Larry Warsh and Hampstead Theatre for supporting the story by allowing it to be heard on a much bigger scale – and for free, which is true to its spirit. I would really like to be there on opening night but unfortunately my passport still hasn’t been returned to me.’

Anne Boleyn

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn is a dramatisation of the life and legacy of the notorious second wife of Henry VIII. It was first performed at Shakespeare's Globe, London, on 24 July 2010.

King James I, rummaging through the dead Queen Elizabeth’s possessions upon coming to the throne in 1603, finds alarming evidence that Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, was a religious conspirator in love with Henry VIII but also with the most dangerous ideas of her day. Anne comes alive for him as a brilliant but reckless young woman confident in her sexuality, whose marriage and death transformed England forever. The potent love between Anne and Henry is so alive and electric that it cannot be contained in the stultifying social mores of the time, but is viewed with alarm by those at Court who fear the threat it poses to their position and influence.

The premiere at Shakespeare's Globe was directed by John Dove, with Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn, James Garnon as King James and Anthony Howell as King Henry. It was well received by the critics, with the Daily Mail (not generally favourable to Left-leaning playwrights) commenting 'It takes a big, generous spirit to fill the Globe, and in this Brenton follows Shakespeare – not just with asides and soliloquies, but with a large colourful canvas.' The play was named Best New Play at the Whatsonstage.com Awards in 2011.

Anne Boleyn was revived at the Globe in 2011 and toured regionally in 2012 in a joint production between Shakespeare’s Globe and English Touring Theatre.

Berlin Bertie

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

An intimate and at times savagely funny psychological study of two sisters, one of who has made her home in East Berlin and one who has stayed on in their native London.

Fleeing from an encounter that has destroyed her marriage, Rosa Brine leaves Berlin in the wake of the downing of the Wall and seeks shelter with her sister Alice. But the sinister figure of 'Berlin Bertie' follows and finds her. A turbulent Easter weekend of explosive confrontations ends in an oddly comic kind of salvation.

Bloody Poetry

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

An elegiac and fiery play about poetry and failed utopias, Bloody Poetry follows Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and their lovers Mary Shelley and Claire Clairemont, into exile. This strange family, vilified for their private lives and socially banished to the Continent, try on the shores of Lake Geneva to find a new way of living, free of repression and constraint, and filled with love and revolutionary passion. But what emerges is a fascinating tangle of disappointments. Brenton stages the famous biographical events of the writers’ lives – the meeting of Shelley and Byron, the stormy night when Frankenstein was conceived – deftly and lyrically, a portrait of the failure of an ideal.

Bloody Poetry was first presented in 1984 at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester.

Christie in Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Christie in Love is a distressing investigation into the mind of the infamous serial killer, John Reginald Halliday Christie, who strangled eight women in his flat in Notting Hill in the 1940s and ’50s. It is part of Brenton’s group of ‘Plays for the Poor Theatre’ – plays with minimal theatrical requirements and small casts, but fierce intensity.

In 1953 the police found the bodies of six women concealed in Christie’s house, including his wife. Christie was hanged for their murders, and found subsequently to have committed two others, crimes for which another man was hanged.

The first scene of Brenton’s play opens on a police constable digging for bones in his backyard and reciting obscene limericks. He is joined by a police inspector who tells an obscene joke and warns the constable not to dwell on Christie’s perversions. The play then resurrects and interrogates Christie, turning his mind inside out and refusing the spectator any palliative measure or escape. It is a naturalistic portrait in a bleak and surreal frame.

Christie in Love was first performed in 1969 by The Portable Theatre at Oval House, London.

Doctor Scroggy’s War

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's play Doctor Scroggy's War is the story of a fictional soldier, Jack Twigg, who, after receiving an injury on the front line during the First World War, encounters the polymath and celebrated surgeon Harold Gillies, acknowledged as the father of modern plastic surgery. The play was first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, on 12 September 2014, marking the centenary of the war.

The play's action centres around the invented character Jack Twigg, a ship’s chandler’s son who enlists in the London Regiment, falls in love with the upper-class Penelope Wedgewood and works as a junior intelligence officer for Sir John French during the battle of Loos in 1915. But Jack leaves the staff, determined to serve in the front line, and there receives a terrible facial injury. This, in the play’s second half, brings him into contact with Harold Gillies, a real-life pioneering plastic surgeon who developed new methods of skin-grafting to restore the faces of badly mutilated men at the Queen’s hospital, Sidcup. The play’s title derives from the roistering alter ego Gillies created to prevent his patients from succumbing to despair. Gillies tries to convince Twigg not to go back to the front, but is unable to do so and the play ends with the young soldier back on the Western Front.

In an article published in The Independent (10 September 2014), Brenton says of the play: 'What helped me in dramatising Harold Gillies were accounts of his extraordinary way of speaking. He was renowned for being difficult to understand, flinging out sentences studded with bizarre metaphors, speeding ahead of his listeners and, at times, himself. Gillies had a hyperactive sense of humour: there were practical jokes and entertainments; there was cross-dressing and illicit champagne and oysters served at night in the wards. Queens was a military hospital and rumours of "goings on" troubled authority. But Gillies, who treated more than five thousand terribly wounded men, some needing as many as 50 operations, understood that souls as well as faces had to be healed. Some of his patients never reintegrated into society but an extraordinary number did, with an insouciance that Gillies's "goings on" encouraged. I have him say about the hospital "We don't do glum here" – that was his spirit. But he was also conflicted in his work by a great fear: that the men he healed would go back to fight at the front.'

The Shakespeare's Globe premiere was directed by John Dove and designed by Michael Taylor. It was performed by Catherine Bailey (as Penelope Wedgewood), Sam Cox, Patrick Driver, Will Featherstone (as Jack Twigg), James Garnon (as Harold Gillies), Daisy Hughes, Joe Jameson, Tom Kanji, Christopher Logan, William Mannering, Holly Morgan, Rhiannon Oliver, Keith Ramsay, Paul Rider, Katy Stephens and Dickon Tyrrell.

Drawing the Line

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's Drawing the Line is a historical drama about the partition of India in August 1947, an act that was to have huge ramifications for the modern world. It highlights the extraordinarily contingent and chaotic political circumstances that lay behind such a momentous historical act. It was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 3 December 2013.

The play opens in London in 1947. Summoned by the Prime Minister from the court where he is presiding judge, Cyril Radcliffe is given an unlikely mission. He is to travel to India, a country he has never visited, and, with limited survey information, no expert support and no knowledge of cartography, he is to draw the border which will divide the Indian sub-continent into two new Sovereign Dominions. To make matters even more challenging, he has only six weeks to complete the task. Wholly unsuited to his role, Radcliffe is unprepared for the dangerous whirlpool of political intrigue and passion into which he is plunged – untold consequences may even result from the illicit liaison between the Leader of the Congress Party and the Viceroy’s wife. As he begins to break under the pressure he comes to realise that he holds in his hands the fate of millions of people.

The play's premiere at Hampstead Theatre was directed by Howard Davies with Tom Beard as Cyril Radcliffe, Silas Carson as Nehru, Andrew Havill as Mountbatten and Abigail Cruttenden as Antonia Radcliffe.

The performance on Saturday 11 January 2014 was live-streamed to a worldwide audience for free by the theatre in association with The Guardian.

The Education of Skinny Spew

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Education of Skinny Spew is a savage play, a brief journey through the life of a boy who gains consciousness in the womb and is immediately disgusted with the world. Skinny Spew is insulted by his parent’s inane attempts to talk to him, rips up his teddy bear, and eventually attacks those he sees as attempting to civilise him, and repress his right to play as he wants to.

It is part of Brenton’s group of ‘Plays for the Poor Theatre’ – plays with minimal theatrical requirements and small casts, but fierce intensity.

The Education of Skinny Spew was first performed in 1969 by the University of Bradford Drama Group.

Eternal Love

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Eternal Love tells the story of the passionate 12th-century love affair between Abelard and Héloïse. It explores the war of ideas that resulted from the ensuing scandal, and examines the complex relationship between logic and religion, humanism and fundamentalism, faith and power. The play was first performed under the title In Extremis at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, on 27 August 2006.

A new spirit of philosophical and religious enquiry is growing in the 12th century. In its vanguard is the brilliant Peter Abelard, a man of great learning, independence of mind and sensuality. He starts a war of ideas with the powerful Abbot and Pope-maker Bernard of Clairvaux, the arch-priest of mysticism and austerity. But when Abelard embarks on a passionate affair with his equally brilliant but disastrously connected student Héloïse, his enemies suddenly have the ideal pretext to destroy him.

The play's 2006 premiere at Shakespeare's Globe was directed by John Dove, with Oliver Boot as Abelard, Sally Bretton as Héloïse, and Jack Laskey as Bernard of Clairvaux. It was well received by the critics and was revived by the Globe in 2007 (first performance on 15 May).

It was later revived by English Touring Theatre in 2014 under the revised title, Eternal Love, and first performed on 6 February at Cambridge Arts Theatre before touring the UK. It was again directed by John Dove, with David Sturzaker as Abelard, Jo Herbert as Héloïse, and Sam Crane as Bernard of Clairvaux.

Picture of Howard Brenton

© Andra Nelki

Howard Brenton came to prominence with his play, Christie in Love, produced by Portable Theatre at the Oval House, London, in 1969. He has written more than forty plays, including The Romans in Britain (1980), the satire Pravda, co-written with David Hare (1985), both at the National Theatre, and Anne Boleyn (2010), which premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe and was voted Best New Play at the WhatsOnStage.Com Awards.

Howard Brenton’s other stage work includes Revenge (Royal Court Theatre, 1969); Magnificence (Royal Court, 1973); The Churchill Play (Nottingham Playhouse, 1974, and twice revived by the RSC, 1978 and 1988); Bloody Poetry (Foco Novo, 1984, and Royal Court Theatre, 1987); Weapons of Happiness (National Theatre, Evening Standard Award, 1976); Epsom Downs (Joint Stock Theatre, 1977); Sore Throats (RSC, 1978); Thirteenth Night (RSC, 1981); The Genius (1983); Greenland (1988) and Berlin Bertie (1992), all presented by the Royal Court; Kit’s Play (RADA Jerwood Theatre, 2000); Paul (National Theatre, 2005); In Extremis (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2006 and 2007, revived by English Touring Theatre as Eternal Love in 2014); Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008); The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapted from the novel by Robert Tressell (Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre, 2010); 55 Days (2012); #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei and Drawing the Line (both 2013), all premiered by Hampstead Theatre, London; The Guffin (NT Connections, 2013) and Dr Scroggy’s War (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2014). Versions of classics include The Life of Galileo (1980) and Danton’s Death (1982) both for the National Theatre, Goethe’s Faust (1995/6) for the RSC, a new version of Danton’s Death for the National Theatre (2010) and Strindberg’s Dances of Death (Gate Theatre, 2013). Collaborations with other writers include Brassneck (with David Hare, Nottingham Playhouse, 1972) and Moscow Gold (with Tariq Ali, RSC, 1990).

Howard Brenton also wrote thirteen episodes of the BBC One drama series Spooks (2001-05, BAFTA Best Drama Series, 2003).