Tag Archives: Howard Brenton

“#AIWW: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

This collaboration with China’s most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, marked something of coup for Hampstead Theatre back in 2013. Adapting the account in Barnaby Martin’s book, Hanging Man, playwright Howard Brenton’s clearly political and cleverly dramatic account of Weiwei’s Kafkaesque detention in 2011 is surprisingly entertaining and serves its subject admirably.

Weiwei is the star of the piece – convincingly so – and the show makes a terrific role for Benedict Wong, who conveys the artist’s magnetism perfectly, while also making him an approachable figure. Aided by Christopher Goh, Andrew Koji, Orion Lee and David Lee-Jones, as those who imprison him, his captors are given an identity and humanity, while the discussions about his art are exciting.

Director James MacDonald works hard to inject energy – this is, after all, a show about a man locked in a room. But the idea behind Ashley Martin Davis’ set – a giant packing case that might hold artwork, with accompanying supernumeraries and crew acting as unconvincing galleristas – feels unnecessary. Likewise, touches of the metatheatrical are forced: the suggestion that the imprisonment becomes the artist’s “greatest work”, not lost on those in power during a rare moment of perspicacity, is too unsubtle. And scenes that show the politicians behind events, with uncomfortably sinister roles for Junix Inocian and David Tse, are low points. These scenes are a marked contrast to the authenticity Wong and the source material bring.

The surprise comes with the humour in the piece. There are plenty of laughs at how crazed Weiwei’s interrogations were. Accused of murder, immorality, but ultimately being a “swindler”, it’s almost a shame those imprisoning him aren’t given a stronger argument… for the sake of the drama rather than Weiwei, of course. The tension of his awful imprisonment is conveyed, and Wong does very well with this. And Brenton gives the interrogations an impressive poetic touch, as repeated accusations contain a rhyme if no reason. But it’s Weiwei’s cool spirit – best reflected in that wry humour – that shows him unbroken and inspirational.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Until 3 May 2020

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

“Drawing the Line” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

The history and politics of the Indian Partition may be messy as well as tragic, but this play about the five weeks leading up to independence by Howard Benton, first seen in 2014, is a neat one. The “impossible task” of dividing a subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan is made into a traditional, efficient and fascinating drama.

The sensible move is to make such a global event a personal story, focusing on Cyril Radcliffe the judge who literally drew the lines on the map. It makes a starring role that (the sadly late) Tom Beard shines with and gives the audience an effective focus. Beard makes a fine narrator with a character that’s engaging and self-deprecating. There’s a believable touch of ego behind a likeable man. That this unusual innocent abroad knows “bugger all about India” is historically awful, but it endears him as a dramatic character. As pressure mounts Beard gets better and better, showing Radcliffe’s vulnerability and determination. As it dawns on him that that he is a “patsy”, and a lonely one at that, we are shown an honourable man it is hard not to feel for.

There are problems with the other characters – a collection of famous historical figures – that the cast struggles with valiantly. While the future Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Silas Carson, pictured top) comes across as too manic, Indian’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is too much the consummate politician. Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, and his wife are given a lot of work to do and, while Andrew Havill and Lucy Black give strong performances, it’s difficult to care about their characters. The staff helping these (too self-consciously) political giants prove more interesting: there is strong work from Nikesh Patel and Brendan Patricks, whose characters work for Radcliffe but have partisan agendas and follow their own consciences.

Benton generally keeps anecdote to a minimum with some surprisingly light touches. With Howard Davies’ skilful direction, the action is clear and interest never flags. Davies also excels at creating a sense of tension with minimal staging or effects. The only slip comes with Radcliffe’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita, a potentially interesting thread that seems bungled, with a brief appearance by Krishna himself.

Understandably, Drawing the Line struggles for a conclusion. The aim of an “honourable end to Empire”, given hindsight, can’t create much tension. But Brenton isn’t scared of scandal or conspiracy and he uses both well. There’s the militant Gandhi and the Mountbattens’ private lives to spice things up. How much both really influenced or could have changed events seems open questions: flippant as both titbits may appear, they make for good theatre.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Available until 19 April 2020

Photos by Catherine Ashmore

“Miss Julie” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Howard Brenton’s long engagement with the master playwright August Strindberg has proved thoughtful and fruitful, with results here that are spectacular. No stranger to controversy in his own plays, Brenton is almost contrarian in his respect for his predecessor. And presenting Strindberg’s tale of a mistress who has an affair with her father’s valet so simply, with no burdening concept or take on the text to push, is a mark of confidence in the original that allows it to both shine and shock.

The direction from Tom Littler is masterful. With some boldly slow pacing that enforces naturalism and an impressive attention to detail, the play is gripping from the start. We first see the aristocratic household’s cook, Kristin, about her chores and waiting on that valet, Jean, who is also her fiancé. Establishing character through mundane actions is one of those things they teach you are drama school isn’t it? But I’ve seldom seen it done with more success that Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s efforts here. Based on the smallest gestures, the character fascinates, carefully becoming a complex and ultimately triumphant figure. Myer-Bennett’s close study pays off marvellously.

Along the way, we have the drama of Jean’s one-night stand with Julie. It is to Brenton’s credit that both get equal focus, aiding the theme of class conflict that powers his version and reflects Strindberg’s troubled relationships with women. The performances from Charlotte Hamblin and James Sheldon are excellent as they take us through Strindberg’s “serious game” of seduction with such precision. Sheldon works magic with his mercurial character, hot with anger and coldly rational by turns. And Hamblin is a true star in the title role, building Miss Julie’s mental instability for the first half, then going all out to become frightening and pitiful in equal measure.

Let’s not forget the importance of sexual chemistry – this is an erotic show and, as a mark of how smoothly Littler handles the twisted kinks, little skin is on show. It is also testament to the exactitude of the production that Kristin and Jean are such a believable couple: the shared cigarette or help with a bow tie become captivating touches. Their relationship raises the stakes and makes Julie’s plans for escape all the more fantastical. The mix of misandry and self-loathing from our heroine becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the small, one-room world Littler brings to life. It’s always an effort for a modern audience to appreciate the shame of a ‘fallen’ woman, so Brenton’s skill lies in showing this a play about more than sexual politics. And his triumph comes in making Miss Julie’s actions seem radical and tragic once more.

Playing in repertory with Howard Brenton’s version of Creditors until 1 June 2019

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

“Christie in Love” at the King’s Head Theatre

This welcome revival of Howard Brenton’s 1969 play, about the serial killer who secreted eight victims at his home, 10 Rillington Place, is exceptional for its fearlessness. A police constable and detective uncover bodies and interrogate the creepily reserved John Christie in a play that’s frightening, bold and adventurous. Brenton casts a cynical eye on the establishment, incompetent and clichéd by turns, while his portrayal of the psychopath, including explicit sexual kinks, is unflinching.

Director Mary Franklin handles the eccentric text bravely. There are pauses aplenty and our first encounter with Christie, masked and masturbating, is truly bizarre. And Franklin secures three superb performances. Daniel Buckley plays the nervous young copper with a taste for nasty limericks, who impresses with his puppetry skills in a flashback scene that has a prostitute encountering Christie. Jake Curran is just as good playing the Inspector, a tricky part full of irony and repression that he makes thrilling. Murray Taylor takes the title role and is truly scary. Unafraid of making eye contact with the audience, he guarantees goose bumps, but this isn’t a shock-horror affair. Hugely committed, Taylor shows Christie as a part of society no matter how abhorrent his actions.

For all this – three of the finest performances you could wish for on a stage – the real star is designer Christopher Hone. With a giant newspaper-filled rectangular box performed on, in and around, this is a set full of surprises. There’s literally a balancing act for the performers, which adds a tension of its own, while the concept serves to focus attention and raise questions, just like the play itself.

Until 18 June 2016

www.kingsheadtheatrepub.co.uk

Photo by Chris Tribble

“Doctor Scroggy’s War”at Shakespeare’s Globe

Howard Brenton makes a return to Shakespeare’s Globe with a new work, the accessible and entertaining Doctor Scroggy’s War, which opened last night. Typical of the venue’s strong commitment to contemporary writing, it also serves to commemorate this year’s anniversary of the start of the First World War.

The play tells the story of two battles against adversity. Jack Twigg, a bright working class boy, enlists in the army, becoming a “temporary gentleman”, allowing Brenton to examine class and patriotism in one swoop. And secondly, there is the story of the real life Dr Harold Gillies, a pioneer in plastic surgery and a remarkable man who fought to heal the minds, as well as the faces, of his patients disfigured in conflict.

There can be few aspects of the War that haven’t been explored by dramatists. Brenton seems to embrace the predictable, a dangerous move, having fun with incompetent toffs and adding a liberated heroine for Jack’s love interest that wouldn’t be amiss in Downton Abbey. Humour is aimed for but too often the plot overrides the jokes. For all director John Dove’s speedy approach, the action feels a little slow at times.

Having worked himself into something of a hole, Brenton does a good job of making the second half much more interesting. To the rescue is Gillies and his alter ego Doctor Scroggy, a caricature Scot who brings fun to the hospital with am dram and alcohol. Gillies explores new techniques in surgery and Brenton becomes more novel as well; looking into questions of identity in an unsentimental fashion and highlighting the fact that, despite their sacrifice, these soldiers often had no regrets.

The dialogue is irreverent – Brenton has fun with the language of the period but this is a joke that wears thin. An adventurous scene that depicts a barrage before going over the top of the trenches is better. Most impressive are direct addresses to the audience, perfect for the Globe, that provide a connection with the characters that is strangely absent as we watch the bare bones of events.

None of these reservations detract from a fine production. The music from William Lyons is of note. Some performances are, deliberately, broad. Credit to William Featherstone as Jack, especially with his face bandaged (believe me, that’s not a plot spoiler) as well as Joe Jameson as Jack’s friend Ralph. Paul Rider stands out as Field Marshall French, although I suspect the role is easy work for such a talented, well cast actor. Final applause goes to James Garnin, who takes on the title role with spirit doing justice to Gillies, whose achievements and eccentricities save the play.

Until 10 October 2014

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Bronwen Sharp

Written 18 September 2014 for The London Magazine

“Dances of Death” at the Gate Theatre

Watching the intricacies of close relationships has an extra charge in the wonderful intimacy of the Gate Theatre. Opening last night, Dances of Death, shows us a marriage long disintegrated into a conjugal competition that is sure to provoke any audience. Howard Brenton’s new version of Strindberg’s influential classic condenses two plays into one evening to create a riveting night of theatre.

At first it seems as if we’re in for a comedy, as Edgar and his wife of 30 years, Alice, bluntly admit their misery, and settle down to a squabbling card game that neither enjoys – they have other games to play of a more sinister kind. Forced to join them is Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft), whose crime of being matchmaker to the pair is something they have never forgiven him for.

Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe establish the main characters with skilful speed. Their continuing contest is convincing, despite obscure motivations and bizarre behaviour. Pennington is marvellous at the captain of a military camp on a remote island; an impressive fabulator, rolling his eyes in a drunken stupor, and a boorish bully with a mischievous edge. Best of all, his depiction of physical illness is superb. Marlowe has a harder task, with a more ambiguous character whose past as an actress gives the whole piece a theatrical air. The performance fits the role, but director Tom Littler shows a questionable bravery in allowing some hands-on-forehead histrionics.

Poor Kurt’s punishment continues into the second play. It’s here that the production is most successful. As Edgar and Alice’s child, performed with a knowing theatricality that makes her very much her mother’s daughter, Eleanor Wyld makes a believable temptress. The innocent “sheep” now is Kurt’s son (a moving performance from Edward Franklin) and as the constraints in their society start to reveal themselves more clearly through the young couple’s relationship, the play starts to matter to us more. Littler’s pacing is bold and James Perkins’ design utilises Strindberg’s paintings to great effect.

It’s still a struggle to really appreciate Edgar and Alice’s relationship – a final admission of affection seems dismissed. The most interesting relationship in Dances of Death is that between its authors – this new version sees two writers, both with very individual voices, somewhat at odds. Brenton’s muscular approach matches Strindberg’s radicalism in many ways and both are visionary artists (interestingly, like Strindberg, Brenton also paints), but Strindberg’s politics are not well served. The writers’ union, like the one on stage, seems uncomfortable, though never less than fascinating.

Until 6 July 2013

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“Danton’s Death” at the National Theatre

As anyone who has attempted Hilary Mantel’s supernovel on the theme will know, revolutionary France seems to have been a fairly confusing place. All those factions and ideologies and decapitations make our current coalition government look dull. And they can be hard to follow. Fortunately, Howard Brenton’s new version of Büchner’s classic, Danton’s Death, cuts to the chase and is light on history and politics.

It is Danton the philosopher that we meet at the National Theatre. His meditations on mortality and fame just happen to have political turmoil as a background. Unfortunately, thinking and politics don’t mix well for him.

Toby Stephens plays Danton. He shouts against corruption superbly but excels when showing the mania of his complex character. Charges of libertinism seem well founded but he is so full of life and charisma that he is appealing. Stephens is magnetic whether on the soapbox, in the bedroom or in prison with his friends.

It is clear we should be following him. Anyway, the opposition are a tiresome lot. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre is a sibilant schoolboy who holds your interest but is hardly terrifying. His followers do far too much arm waving to rise above pantomime.

More disappointing than our hero’s enemies is his wife. Danton’s philandering doesn’t seem to have disturbed Madame at all. I am not sure what would fluster her, as Kirsty Bushell’s performance is so understated as to be soporific. She might be annoyed at the mess he’s going to make of his collar, but that’s about it.

Thankfully the spotlight is on Danton most of the time. And what a spotlight it is – Paule Constable’s lighting for the production is stunning, working perfectly with Christopher Oram’s cliché-free set and aiding director Michael Grandage’s clear, fast-paced production.

Danton’s death comes quickly and the props department’s stunning guillotine is truly convincing. I panicked for a moment, thinking Toby Stephens had been sacrificed for the sake of his art. That would have been a tragedy indeed – this production can’t afford to lose him.

Until 14 October 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 2 August 2010 for The London Magazine