Howard Brenton

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.

The Blinding Light  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's play The Blinding Light is about the playwright August Strindberg, focussing on a period of crisis in his life when, in 1896, he suffered a mental breakdown in a hotel room in Paris. The play was first performed at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, on 6 September 2017.

The play is set in February 1896 in a squalid top-floor room in the Hotel Orfila, Rue d’Assas, Paris. The room is occupied by the famous Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who, having abandoned theatre, is living a life of squalid splendour, attempting to make gold by finding the philosopher’s stone, the secret of creation. As his grasp on reality weakens, his first two wives, Siri and Frida, visit him to bring him to his senses. But their interventions spin out of control.

In an introduction to the published script, Howard Brenton writes: 'I wrote The Blinding Light to try to understand the mental and spiritual crisis that August Strindberg suffered in February, 1896. Deeply disturbed, plagued by hallucinations, he holed up in various hotel rooms in Paris, most famously in the Hotel Orfila in the Rue d’Assas. ... Before and after the crisis in Paris he always wanted to make the theatre more real, at first by being true to the minutiae of everyday life – the famous cooking on stage in Miss Julie – then by trying to stage psychological states so vividly you think you are dreaming wide awake. By ‘realist’ or expressionist’ means he wanted audiences to see the world in a new light.'

The Jermyn Street Theatre production was directed by Tom Littler with a set designed by Cherry Truluck for Lucky Bert. It was performed by Laura Morgan, Jasper Britton (as August), Susannah Harker and Gala Gordon.

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.

Dances of Death  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's play Dances of Death is an adaptation (from a literal translation by Agnes Broome) of August Strindberg's two plays, The Dance of Death Parts I and II (both written in 1900), about a marriage that has turned sour.

Dances of Death was first performed at the Gate Theatre, London, on 30 May 2013.

The play is in two parts, with Part One set on a military base on a small island, where Edgar (the Captain) and his wife Alice (a former actress), married for almost thirty years, are trapped in a relationship of mutual loathing. They have alienated their daughter Judith, and have developed choreographed routines for torturing one another. The arrival of Alice’s mild-mannered cousin, Kurt, brings new opportunities for vindictiveness, while in Part Two, set a couple of years later in a house on the other side of the island, the couple's ongoing battle threatens not only their future, but that of their friends and children as well.

The Gate Theatre production was directed by Tom Littler and designed by James Perkins, with Michael Pennington as Edgar, Linda Marlowe as Alice, Christopher Ravenscroft as Kurt, Edward Franklin as Allan, Eleanor Wyld as Judith and Richard Beanland as The Lieutenant. 

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.

The Genius

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A nuclear physicist runs away from the horrifying consequences of his research in this flinty, electric modern parallel to Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

Brenton’s genius is Leo Lehrer, a brilliant and magnetic American, in academic exile at a rainy English Midlands university because he refused to work for the Pentagon. His inability to confront the moral and ethical implications of his discoveries leave him unable to work, or do anything except get high and sleep with his friend’s wife in the snow.

Then he meets Gilly, a first year mathematics student, who can do the equations he has been trying to hide from: she has worked them out for herself. Together they struggle to deny science’s imperative for progress, and stare in horror at the momentous power which they have articulated.

The Genius was first performed in 1983 at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Gum and Goo

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Gum and Goo is a short dark play about the world inside the mind of a young autistic girl. 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 play opens on two boys who torment a young girl, lifting up her skirt and calling her goofy. She starts screaming and retreats into her own head. There the actors who played the boys become Gum and Goo, gremlins who offer to be her friends. They send her home for tea, and she wanders through a distorted world of confusing streets, dirty old men and a mother whose head comes off.

Gum and Goo was first performed in 1969 by the Brighton Combination.

Heads

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Heads is a short and brutal play about greed and the perfect man. It is part of Brenton’s group of ‘Plays for the Poor Theatre’ – plays with minimal theatrical requirements and small casts, but fierce intensity.

A woman is in love with two men: one for his physical power; the other for his brilliant mind. But one’s muscles begin to disgust her, and the other’s obsession with increasing his vocabulary cannot satisfy her. She can never be happy while the two halves of perfection remain unreconciled.

Heads was first performed in 1969 by the University of Bradford Drama Group.

Lawrence After Arabia

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton’s Lawrence After Arabia is a biographical play exploring the later years in the life of T.E. Lawrence, once celebrated as Lawrence of Arabia. It was commissioned to mark the centenary of the start of the Arab revolt, and was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 28 April 2016.

The play's action, according to an author's note in the script, 'takes place at Shaw’s Corner, the home of George Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot St Lawrence, in August 1922 and February 1923, and in the head of T.E. Lawrence'. Wearied by his romanticised persona and worldwide fame, disgusted with his country and himself, Lawrence has disappeared from public life. Craving normality, he has retreated to the idyllic calm of Ayot St Lawrence, where he occupies lodgings on the top floor of the home of Mr and Mrs Bernard Shaw. But England wants its hero back, and Lawrence finds himself trapped in his love/hate relationship with the limelight, tormented by ghosts and haunted by broken promises.

The Hampstead Theatre premiere was directed by John Dove and designed by Michael Taylor. The cast was Sam Alexander, William Chubb, Geraldine James (as Charlotte Shaw), Khalid Laith, Jack Laskey (as T.E. Lawrence), Rosalind March and Jeff Rawle as George Bernard Shaw.

Miss Julie  (trans. Brenton)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's adaptation of August Strindberg's play Miss Julie (from a literal translation by Agnes Broome) was first performed at the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, on 30 June 2017 and later at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, on 14 November 2017, in a production by Theatre by the Lake and Jerymn Street Theatre.

The play is set in the kitchen of a manor house on Midsummer’s Eve. The house's owner, the Earl, is away visiting relatives, but his 25-year-old daughter Julie, whose engagement has just been broken off, has stayed at home with the servants. When Julie gatecrashes the servants' party, she finds herself in a dangerous tryst with her father's valet, Jean. What begins as a flirtatious game gradually descends, over the course of a long and sultry night, into a savage fight for survival.

Howard Brenton, in a foreword to the published script, writes that 'I wanted to do something that’s impossible – to write a play so true to Strindberg that it would seem it was he, not I, who was writing Miss Julie in English. ... So what I wrote is, yes, a bold reworking, using all I could muster to make it alive. But I took nothing away nor did I add anything. I had a strict rule that all the thoughts, expressions and images must be from the original.'

The Theatre by the Lake/Jerymn Street Theatre production was directed by Tom Littler with set and costume design by Louie Whitemore. The cast was Izabella Urbanowicz as Kristin, James Sheldon as Jean and Charlotte Hamblin as Miss Julie.

Never So Good

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Never So Good was first performed in the Lyttelton auditorium of the National Theatre on 26 March 2008 (previews from 17 March 2008). It explores the decline of British fortunes in the middle of the twentieth century through a portrait of Harold Macmillan, the Conservative politician and Prime Minister.

The play, divided into four acts, covers Macmillan's early life and military experience in World War I; his involvement in British politics during the descent into World War II; the Suez Crisis, during which he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer; and his service as Prime Minister, during which the reputation of his government was severely damaged by the Profumo Affair. Macmillan's younger self remains with him through the play, providing mocking commentary.

The title of Never So Good derives from Macmillan's speech to a Conservative rally in Bedford in July 1957, which included the oft-quoted line 'most of our people have never had it so good'.

The play's National Theatre premiere was directed by Howard Davies. The cast included Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan, Anthony Calf as Anthony Eden, Pip Carter as young Harold Macmillan, Anna Carteret as Nellie Macmillan, Anna Chancellor as Dorothy Macmillan and Ian McNeice as Winston Churchill.

Press reaction to the play was generally admiring, with many critics noting with surprise that, for a playwright associated with the political Left, Brenton's portrait of Macmillan is surprisingly sympathetic. Charles Spencer in particular, writing in The Daily Telegraph, reported that Brenton had 'originally set out to write a satire about Harold Macmillan... But the more [he] researched the man once dubbed the great actor-manager of British politics, the more he came to admire him, and this gripping, compassionate and often delightfully comic play strikes me as his finest achievement to date.'

Paul

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Exploring the life and teachings of Paul the Apostle, Howard Brenton's Paul is a play that examines – and raises profound questions about – the historical basis of Christianity. It was first performed in the Cottesloe auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 9 November 2005 (previews from 30 September).

The play proposes that the most famous conversion in history – when Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus – was prompted by a trick: it was actually Jesus appearing to him. Jesus did not die on the cross but was rescued and sheltered by his brother James, by Peter and by Peter’s wife, Mary Magdalene. But they prefer to keep Paul in the dark because, although he is mistakenly preaching that Christ rose again, at least it keeps him busy and gets the message of Christianity out there. Now imprisoned by Nero, Peter finally tells Paul the truth before they go to their deaths as the first Christian martyrs.

Paul was Howard Brenton’s first solely authored original play to be professionally staged since Berlin Bertie in 1992. The National Theatre premiere was directed by Howard Davies and designed by Vicki Mortimer. Paul Rhys, the actor originally cast in the role of Paul, had to withdraw from the production due to exhaustion; he was replaced in the role by Adam Godley, and the press night, originally scheduled for 6 October, was postponed until 9 November.

It was reported (Observer, 9 October 2005) that the National Theatre received 200 letters of complaint about the 'irreverent' nature of the play, even before opening night. Paul nonetheless received admiring reviews, and Brenton went on to write a string of well-received, historically-inspired dramas including In Extremis (Shakespeare's Globe, 2006, later retitled Eternal Love), Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008) and Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare's Globe, 2010).

Pravda

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Pravda (which means ‘truth’) is a comedy of excess which put modern Fleet Street on the stage for the first time. It is an acerbic satire on the ruthless newspaper culture of the 1980s, in particular an insatiable media mogul eating into the liberal, loss-making establishment.

Lambert Le Roux begins his string of aggressive acquisitions by buying the local paper The Leicester Bystander, firing the editor and putting Andrew in charge, a man who loves newspapers so much he won’t print corrections because they spoil the page. Andrew’s fortunes rise with La Roux’s as the tycoon buys a broadsheet, fires almost everyone and promoting Andrew to the top. La Roux is a man who believes in regularly sacking his entire work force and that there is no point making good papers because the bad ones sell so much better, and the play matches his unprincipled machinations against Andrew’s wavering principles.

Pravda is an attack on the commercial degradation of the British newspaper that is both lively and funny, and fascinatingly prophetic. Pravda premiered in 1985 at the National Theatre, London.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, first published in 1914 after his death in 1911, is a recognised classic of working-class literature. It is an account of the working lives of a group of housepainters and decorators in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of Hastings.

Howard Brenton’s stage adaptation, first performed at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool on 17 June 2010 in a co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre, lays bare the many social injustices perpetrated on these men whilst capturing their individual characters.

The plot recounts the little daily successes and the disasters of the group, living under constant fear of being laid off by employers forever looking for new corners to cut. Both workers and bosses are caught in a system spiralling out of control, with the workers always coming out the worse. The men debate the whys and wherefores of their poverty but one worker, Frank Owen, believes the cause of life-long poverty is actually due to what he calls the ‘Great Money Trick’. He attempts to convince the group that they are victims of a ruthless capitalist system, which transforms them into the ‘philanthropists’ of the title because they simply give the value of their work away to their oppressive employers.

The Everyman Theatre premiere was directed by Christopher Morahan with an ensemble cast including Dean Ashton, Will Beer, Louise, Larry Dann, Tim Frances, Finbar Lynch, Des McAleer, Thomas Morrison, Laura Rees, Paul Regan, Gyuri Sarossy and Nicolas Tennant. The production subsequently transferred to the Minerva Theatre in Chichester on 15 July 2010.

The Romans in Britain

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A tough, vigorous epic, The Romans in Britain looks at imperialism and the conflict of cultures, examining Julius Caesar’s invasion of Celtic Britain, a Saxon invasion of Roman-Celtic Britain, and the British Army in the twentieth-century conflict in Northern Ireland.

As these scenes bleed into one another, Brenton suggests what it might have been like for these people to meet. Three Roman soldiers sexually assault a young druid priest. A lone, wounded Saxon soldier stumbles into a field, a nightmare made real. An army intelligence officer begins to lose his mind in the Irish fields. Brenton’s sinewy vernaculars summon a lost history of cultural collision and oppression, of fear and sorrow.

When first performed in 1980 on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre, London, there was great controversy concerning the scene in which a male priest is raped by a Roman soldier, with the moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse bringing an unsuccessful court case against the production.

The Saliva Milkshake

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Saliva Milkshake is a short and chilling play, part of Brenton’s group of ‘Plays for the Poor Theatre’ – plays with minimal theatrical requirements and small casts, but fierce intensity.

When Martin comes home to his flat, he finds Joan who has broken in and made herself a coffee, after killing the Home Secretary. They were revolutionary socialists in their student days, but while Joan is still rebelling, Martin has settled into a middle-class academic position, and he is horrified to find Joan appealing to him for help. The play is the story of an intellectual forced into action in an oppressive and watchful society.

The Saliva Milkshake was first performed in 1975 at the Soho Poly Lunchtime Theatre.

The Shadow Factory  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's play The Shadow Factory is a historical play set in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, about the impact of German bombing raids on Southampton, where the Government's response to the destruction of the Spitfire factory sparks tensions with the local community. The play was first performed at Nuffield Southampton Theatres as the inaugural production in the new NST City venue on 7 February 2018.

The play is set in the autumn of 1940, with the action taking place in Southampton, the grounds and rooms of Hursley House, just outside the town, and in the Ministry for Aircraft Production, London. When the Supermarine Spitfire factory in the suburb of Woolston is destroyed in the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids, Lord Beaverbrook, as minister of aircraft production, is given the power to requisition local properties as 'shadow factories' in order to keep up the production of Spitfires. The drama focuses on a fictional laundry owner, Fred Dimmock, who resists the government’s draconian powers and threats of imprisonment. The play also features a community ensemble who provide a constant choric comment on the action.

In a Foreword to the published playtext, Howard Brenton writes: 'I write history plays because I’m fascinated by moments of crisis that cause great, even revolutionary change... I see 1940 as one of those moments and not for the obvious reason that we avoided defeat. People survived the Luftwaffe and knuckled down under the orders of the draconian War Ministry. Despair was far more widespread than is acknowledged but also a spirit of ‘sod the lot of them’ began to grow, undetected by the Government. In the end there would be payback. In 1945 Churchill got the shock of his life when the Labour Party won a general election with a majority of 145, then set about the most radical change in our country since the seventeenth century.'

The premiere production was directed by Samuel Hodges. It was performed by David Birrell, Catherine Cusack, Anita Dobson, Lorna Fitzgerald, Hilton McRae, Shala Nyx and Daniel York. 

Thirteenth Night

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Thirteenth Night is a dream play rewriting Shakespeare’s Macbeth for a Labour government, an denunciation of creeping tyranny and socialism’s dilution.

In the prologue, the socialist idealist Jack Beaty is hit over the head. He dreams of a world in which his speeches against bloated forms of government and American interposition can summon riots against the American embassy, and three women in an underground car park demand a new politics. He is driven by the taut, clawing invective of Jenny Gaze to commit murder, and ascend to the top of a brutal and tyrannical, and ostensibly socialist, government. Ominous and witty, Brenton recasts Macbeth to discover a contemporary path to tyranny.

Thirteenth Night was first presented in 1981 at the Warehouse, London.

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).