Howard Brenton’s 1973 masterpiece Magnificence will be revived at the Finborough Theatre this month. It originally premiered at the Royal Court, and over 40 years on many of the themes still remain burning issues today.
Both epic and intimate, Brenton’s play takes us from the grubby barracks of the revolutionary struggle, to the heart of centre-right Tory politicking, creating a panoramic vision of Britain at a pivotal moment in history.
We chatted to the playwright to talk about the relevance of his play today.
- Describe Magnificence in 3 words.
- Despite being written in 1973, themes of shallow politicians, social housing crisis and police brutality are still just as current today. Could you have ever foreseen that we would still be in a state of political turmoil?
No. I thought that by the second decade of this century we’d be living in a decent, democratic, socialist country that had shed its Imperial fantasies and was at ease with itself. The other night I was talking to the critic John Lahr, author of Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, the magnificent biography of Tennessee Williams. We fell, for fun, to talking of national characteristics. Having done Trump’s America, I said, “what about we Brits?”. “You’re a nation of hysterics”, he replied. “Oh, not phlegmatic, reserved. Not at all, you swing from one extreme to another”. I suddenly thought, yes, we’re out of control, into massive self-harming.
3. And how do you think the current state of affairs impacts on the audience’s response to your play?
Never try to second guess an audience! There are obvious parallels, my inferno-like story of a young person’s descent into a violent, political psycho drama. Well, yes, decent young people in Italy, Germany and England went there in the 1970s and others are now in the name of ISIS. But I’m not handling out a message, it was a drama written at a tense time to sort my own head out. And there is a comic element, the ludicrous and terrifying go hand in hand in the play the meaning of which is?
4. If you had written the play today, do you think there would be any significant additions?
It wouldn’t be possible to write the play now. The past is a different country and its plays may or may not tell us something. Hopefully mine does.
5. What’s the last production you saw at the theatre?
David Hare’s The Red Barn at the National Theatre. A terrific show, David’s great theme of the pursuit of ruthless emotional honesty – often with disastrous consequences – given full throttle.
- What has been your career highlight to date?
The first night of Paul – about the origins of Christianity – at the National in 2005. After some lean years Nick Hytner got me back into the theatre by commissioning the play and I was very lucky to strike up a partnership with the director Howard Davies. It was a very happy first night and I thought oh, I can go on. Howard’s directed four of my plays now and at the moment we’re planning a fifth for The Hampstead Theatre.
- You’ve written 14 episodes of Spooks, do you prefer writing for screen or stage?
It was fun writing for Kudos, the company who made Spooks, we had great times. Raucous weekends in hotels with all the team planning storylines, ferocious deadline pressure that somehow you dealt with (everyone else was half my age). But my heart is really with the stage.
- Who is your hero?
Jean-Paul Sartre. He led a rarefied, rickety life and was, perhaps, not a wholly admirable person, but the hard-light humanity of his writing is wonderful and there’s a wicked, paradoxical sense of humour in there. At a very difficult moment when I was young a book of his saved my life.
- Who would you most like to work with?
- What’s next for you?
I’ve written a new play for The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton called The Shadow Factory which Sam Hodges is going to direct in September next year. And now I’m writing a play called Judith The Obscure for The Hampstead Theatre – the project conceived with Howard Davies.