NHB Classic Plays


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. 

A Dream Play (adapt. Churchill)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill's version of August Strindberg's 1901 drama A Dream Play was written for the director Katie Mitchell, based on a literal translation of the Swedish original by Charlotte Barslund. It was first performed, with additional material by Katie Mitchell and the company, in the Cottesloe auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 15 February 2005 (previews from 4 February).

A young woman, Agnes (the daughter of the gods), comes from another world to see if life is really as difficult as people make it out to be. She meets a host of people and experiences many kinds of human suffering. The play follows a dreamlike logic, with characters merging into each other and locations changing in an instant. A locked door becomes an obsessively recurrent image. As Strindberg himself wrote in his Preface, he wanted 'to imitate the disjointed yet seemingly logical shape of a dream. Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist.'

In her introduction to the published edition (Nick Hern Books, 2005), Churchill writes 'on the whole this version stays close to the original. What I've mostly done is tighten the dialogue and cut out a few chunks. ... I've cut things that seemed repetitive; sometimes I've cut bits that just seemed to me or Katie not to work very well. And I've cut the meaning of life. ... When it turns out there's nothing behind the fridge door, the daughter of the gods promises the writer she'll tell him the secret when they're alone. What she says may have seemed more original or daring when Strindberg wrote it, but seems a bit of an anticlimax to us. So in this version she whispers it to the writer and we never know what it is. But was telling us the meaning of life one of the main points of the play for Strindberg? I hope not. I do feel abashed at cutting another writer's work; directors have fewer qualms.'

The National Theatre premiere, directed by Katie Mitchell and directed by Vicki Mortimer, was performed by an ensemble company comprising Mark Arends, Anastasia Hille, Kristin Hutchinson, Sean Jackson, Charlotte Roach, Dominic Rowan, Justin Salinger, Susie Trayling, Lucy Whybrow and Angus Wright.

The House of Bernarda Alba (trans. Munro)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's version of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play The House of Bernarda Alba (La Casa de Bernarda Alba) was commissioned by Shared Experience and first performed at the Salisbury Playhouse on 11 March 1999 at the start of a tour.

The play is set in the titular house belonging to Bernarda Alba who, having been left a widow after the death of her second husband, locks all the doors and windows and imposes a seven-year mourning period. Her grown-up daughters, ordered to sew and be silent, begin to seethe as their chances of escaping their mother’s grip grow ever slimmer. The sisters are jealous of eldest daughter Angustias’ large dowry, inherited from her father and Bernarda’s first husband, which means that she at least has a shot at marriage. However, her proposed suitor, Pepe, is having a secret affair with another sister, Adela. The fight for Pepe’s attentions, and the potent sibling rivalry bred within the isolated house, ultimately lead to tragic consequences for Bernarda Alba and her children.

In an author's note in the published edition, Munro describes Lorca's play as 'a passionate appeal against repression. If only, the play seems to say, we could love where we chose. If only we could throw off mourning and reclaim our relationship with life. If only we could touch each other openly, not through the bars of a window in the dark... If only all the forces of tradition and landed wealth could be relaxed so that the rich could consider more than the future of their acres and the poor could be released from the eternal worry of where the next plate of chick peas was coming from.'

The Shared Experience production was directed by Polly Teale and designed by Angela Davies. It was performed by Gabrielle Reidy, Sandy McDade, Sandra Duncan (as Bernarda), Manda Drew, Tanya Ronder, Carolyn Jones, Janet Henfrey, Ruth Lass and Victoria Finney.

After touring Guildford, West Yorkshire, Richmond, Oxford, Bath and Liverpool, the production opened at the Young Vic Theatre, London, on 18 May 1999.

Rona Munro later revisited the play for a National Theatre of Scotland production in 2009 in which she updated the text by setting the story in the heart of gangland Glasgow.

The Lady from the Sea  (trans. Cook)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Elinor Cook's version of The Lady from the Sea relocates the action of Henrik Ibsen's 1888 play from 19th-century Norway to a Caribbean island in the 1950s. The play was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on 18 October 2017 (previews from 12 October).

The play is mostly set in and around an old colonial house belonging to Doctor Wangel, sometime in the mid-1950s. Wangel's second wife, Ellida, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, feels trapped in her marriage and longs for the sea. When a mysterious seagoing Stranger, a man to whom Ellida was once betrothed, makes an appearance after years of absence, she is forced to decide between freedom and the new life she has made for herself.

The Donmar Warehouse production was directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and designed by Tom Scutt. It was performed by Jim Findley, Helena Wilson, Jonny Holden, Ellie Bamber, Finbar Lynch (as Doctor Wangel), Tom Mckay, Nikki Amuka-Bird (as Ellida) and Jake Fairbrother.

Life is a Dream

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño) is a masterpiece from the Spanish Golden Age by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81), exploring illusion, reality and fate against the backdrop of a mythical Polish kingdom. Helen Edmundson's version, written entirely in blank verse, was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on 13 October 2009 (previews from 8 October).

The play's action focuses on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower by his father, King Basilio, following a dire prophecy that the prince would bring disaster to the country and death to the King. Basilio briefly frees Segismundo, but when the prince goes on a rampage, the king imprisons him again, persuading him that it was all a dream. However, Segismundo is released once again during a popular uprising; this time he translates his bewilderment over his changes of fortune into loving charity and kindness. In a complex subplot, Rosaura, a spurned woman, is eventually reunited with her lover.

The Donmar Warehouse production was directed by Jonathan Munby and designed by Angela Davies. It starred Dominic West as Segismundo. The other members of the cast were Rupert Evans, Kate Fleetwood, David Horovitch, Lloyd Hutchinson, Sharon Small, David Smith, Malcolm Storry and Dylan Turner.

The Master Builder (trans. Edgar)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

David Edgar's version of Ibsen's 1892 play The Master Builder, based on a literal translation by Desireé Kongerød McDougall, is a compelling study of obsessive determination and the darker side of ambition. It was commissioned by Chichester Festival Theatre and first performed at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, on 9 September 2010.

Halvard Solness, a leading local architect, is at the end of his career. A single-minded man of angry pride, trapped in a frozen marriage to Aline, he is terrified of being eclipsed by the younger generation snapping at his heels. A decade after their first meeting, the charismatic young Hilde Wangel comes back into his life and inspires him to even greater heights. But as he embarks on his latest towering achievement, the pressure threatens not to renew him, but to destroy him instead.

In his foreword to the published script, David Edgar notes that 'The most obvious change that I’ve made to The Master Builder is changing its shape from three acts to two. ... In my version... the interval comes not after Solness’s first conversation with Hilde (where Ibsen places his first act-change), nor at Hilde’s first entrance twenty minutes earlier (which a screenwriter would see as the end of the first act). It comes at the moment when Solness decides to tell Hilde everything, thus fully arming her for the rest of the play.'

Edgar also observes that, 'In The Master Builder, the big linguistic question is how you translate Hilde Wangel... . Some previous translations tend towards the argot of an Angela Brazil schoolgirl (‘terribly exciting’, ‘frightfully thrilling’), which feels quaint today. I have modified the Michael Meyer rule: there are no anachronisms, but I have allowed myself words and expressions which, while retaining their common meaning, have taken on a particular, contemporary youth-speak patina. So while I wouldn’t use ‘wicked’ (whose youth-use reverses its conventional meaning) or expressions like ‘Hallo?’ (as an emphatic rather than a salutation), I have used words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘magic’, and expressions like ‘I don’t think so’.'

The Chichester production was directed by Philip Franks and designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, with Michael Pennington as Halvard Solness, Maureen Beattie as Aline Solness, Pip Donaghy as Dr Herdal, John McEnery as Knut Brovik, Philip Cumbus as Ragnar Brovik, Emily Wachter as Kaja Fosli and Naomi Frederick as Hilde Wangel.

Medea (trans. Lochhead)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Liz Lochhead’s Medea brings a contemporary Scottish flavour to Euripides' story of the abandoned wife who murders her own children in revenge on her husband. It was commissioned and first performed by Theatre Babel at The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on 17 March 2000.

Medea has been abandoned by her husband Jason in favour of Glauke, the daughter of Kreon, King of Corinth. Fearing that she plans revenge, Kreon banishes Medea. However, he grants her one more day of freedom, in the course of which Medea poisons Glauke and goes on to murder the two children she has had with Jason.

A stage direction in the published text states that 'The people of this country [ie Corinth] all have Scots accents, their language varies from Scots to Scots-English – from time to time and from character to character – and particular emotional state of character.' In the Theatre Babel production, the actor playing the part of Medea, who has come to Corinth from her native Kolchis, spoke in the heavily accented English of an East European refugee.

The Theatre Babel premiere was directed by Graham McLaren with Maureen Beattie in the title role. The production was revived at the Assembly Rooms for the Edinburgh Festival fringe in August 2000, and then remounted for a national tour later in 2000. It returned to the Assembly Rooms for the Edinburgh Festival fringe in August 2001.

The playtext published by Nick Hern Books was awarded the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award in 2001.

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.

Orestes: Blood and Light

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson’s Orestes is a drama about avenging siblings, exploring the tragedy of human relationships set against the backdrop of war. It is based on Euripides’ Electra. Orestes was first performed by Shared Experience at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 14 September 2006.

Orestes and his sister, Electra, were banished as children after witnessing the brutal murder of their father, King Agamemnon, at the hands of their mother, Klytemnestra. Years later, they have avenged their father’s death with matricide and now the city must vote to determine their future as they stand trial for her murder. Inflamed by the situation of war, the city stands divided over their sentence. Some say the killing should be met with banishment and that the cycle of revenge must be stopped. But others are baying for their blood.

In her foreword to the published edition of the play, Edmundson writes 'I have played fast and loose with the conventions of Greek theatre and with Euripides’ version of the story. I have abandoned the Chorus (who is not active or influential in the Euripides) in favour of the more subtle witness of the Slave. I have cut the character of Pylades to allow Electra her full role in the story and to allow myself to explore the extremities of her relationship with her brother. I have given Helen an intelligent, probing mind and allowed her and Klytemnestra some defence. I have chosen not to emulate the verse structure and metres of Euripides’ text, but to try to create a rhythmic, heightened language of my own.'

The play's full title in the published edition is Orestes: Blood and Light.

The Shared Experience production was directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Niki Turner, with Tim Chipping as Menelaos, Jeffery Kissoon as Tyndareos, Mairead McKinley as Electra, Clara Onyemere as Helen, Claire Prempeh as the Slave and Alex Robertson as Orestes. The production subsequently toured to Dublin Theatre Festival, Warwick Arts Centre, The Lowry in Salford, Liverpool Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse and the Tricycle Theatre, London.


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Tanya Ronder's adaptation of Lope de Vega's classic 17th-century tragicomedy, Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña, was first performed at the Young Vic Theatre, London on 7 May 2003 (previews from 1 May).

The play is about a peasant named Peribanez, and a regional Commander who falls in love with his wife Casilda. The trouble starts during the wedding of Peribanez and Casilda, when the Commander is unhorsed while trying to control a raging bull and is forced to recover in Peribanez' house. Smitten with the beautiful bride, the Commander's ungovernable passion leads him to spy on Casilda, fruitlessly besiege her and eventually send her husband into battle against the Arab enemy. However, Peribanez asks the Commander to knight him before sending him into battle, so that he might fight with honour. The Commander obliges, unwittingly elevating the peasant to his own level and giving him the right to do battle with him.

The Young Vic premiere was directed by Rufus Norris and designed by Ian MacNeil, with David Harewood as the Commander, Michael Nardone as Peribanez and Jackie Morrison as Casilda..


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill's Thyestes is a translation of Seneca's Roman tragedy, with its bloody revenge plot that provided the blueprint for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, on 7 June 1994.

Thyestes and his brother Atreus are fierce rivals and joint rulers of Mycenae until Thyestes has an affair with Atreus’ wife and is banished along with his two young sons. Atreus vows revenge and pretends to forgive Thyestes in order to lure in his nephews. Once the boys are within his grasp, they are killed and served up in a stew for their father to feast upon. The play also highlights the plight of Tantalus, the brothers’ grandfather, who was sent to his eternal punishment in Tartarus for sacrificing his son and serving him up to the Gods at a banquet. The child in question, Pelops, was later revived and fathered both Atreus and Thyestes, doomed to repeat the sins of their fathers.

The Royal Court premiere was directed by James Macdonald and designed by Jeremy Herbert, with a cast including Sebastian Harcombe, Rhys Ifans, James Kennedy, Kevin McMonagle and Ewan Stewart.

The York Mystery Plays

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Mike Poulton's version of the medieval play cycle known as The York Mystery Plays (a cycle that was first performed in the city of York in the 1300s) was commissioned for a production in York Minster in 2000 as part of the city's Millennium celebrations. This revised text was first performed at York Minster on 26 May 2016.

The cycle comprises 48 mystery plays or 'pageants' covering sacred history from the Creation of Heaven and Earth to the Last Judgment.

In an Author's Note in the published script, Poulton writes: 'The scope and completeness of the York cycle is astonishing. The subtlety and variety of the verse and characterisation are accessible and actable. Today the vocabulary may have changed but the old rhythms are detectable still in the Yorkshire dialect. On setting to work it became clear to me that the text is the work of playwrights rather than authors – people who understood how a play works, and knew how to write clear and deliverable lines, as well as when to stand back from the script and leave everything to the director and the actors. So my approach to the text was to retain as much of the original as I thought would be accessible to today’s audience. As far as possible I kept the original words, rhythms, and speech patterns. Where I had to modernise I attempted to show the spirit that lies under the lines rather than produce a prosaic translation of the lines themselves. And most of all I tried to offer each character in the play the personality and individuality I found in the original text. So I hope my version has the right mix of humour, joy, pathos, and grandeur that make the original York Mysteries one of the great achievements of European literature.'

The original 2000 York Minster production was directed by Gregory Doran with Ray Stevenson in the role of Jesus.

The 2016 production was directed by Phillip Breen with Becky Hope-Palmer, and designed by Max Jones with Ruth Hall. The part of Jesus was played by Philip McGinley.

Nick Hern Books is one of the UK’s leading specialist performing arts publishers, with a vast collection of plays, screenplays and theatre books in their catalogue. They also license most of their plays for amateur performance.