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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Brenton’

This is the fifth new Howard Brenton play in seven years at Hampstead Theatre; what I call his late flowering period. I’ve enjoyed the previous four, on subjects as diverse as Charles I, Ai Wei Wei, the partition of India & Lawrence of Arabia, but this one didn’t really work for me. It’s inspired by, rather than adapted from, Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure, which began life as a magazine serial.

The themes of education, class, religion and morality are still there, but the protagonist is now a Syrian refugee called Judith. She cleans for teacher Sally, who befriends her but soon finds her somewhat demanding. Somewhere along the way she has a child by laddish local Jack, though he doesn’t seem to figure much in her life. Judith learns Greek and Latin and moves to Oxford, where she lives with (and beds) her cousin Merch and studies for A levels. Here she befriends Deirdre, an eminent professor who, when she gets her results, finds her a place and a bursary at the University. Then the secret services intervene.

The story is a bit thin and more than a touch implausible. The first half is particularly slow, but things do step up a notch or two after the interval. It’s not a patch on his other work though, and Edward Hall’s somewhat static production fails to bring it alive, looking lost on a big round virtually bare stage. Isabella Nefar is extremely watchable as Judith, with an edginess that is sometimes mesmerising. Caroline Loncq is particularly good as Deirdre, though she does have the best lines, chief among them one where she describes the application of a self-educated Arab single mother as boxes ticking themselves.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Brenton’s best writing about true subjects and real people.

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This is the second play about Lawrence of Arabia in this centenary year of the Arab Revolt. When I saw Howard Brenton’s Lawrence After Arabia recently at Hampstead, I had no idea Terence Rattigan had written a play about the same man 46 years ago. This rare revival at Chichester was therefore an opportunity not to be missed for a Rattigan fan with a new interest in T E Lawrence. 

Like Brenton’s play, it starts and ends with scenes after his return from the Middle East, but this time during his first spell of attempted anonymity in the RAF rather than his second spell in the army, and we’re there with him rather than on leave at the home of G B Shaw and his wife. The filling in this sandwich is a more substantial period in the Middle East. Rattigan uses his RAF experience once more in writing terrific scenes of camaraderie, funny at the beginning, more moving at the end. There’s real emphasis on his genuine affection for, and friendship with, the Arab rebels he effectively leads. The Turkish forces appear this time and the account of the horrors he experienced when apprehended by them are very graphic. Though I enjoyed Brenton’s play, I found this had more depth, both in narrative and characterisation, but it did lag a bit in the initial Middle East scenes.

The eighteen strong all-male cast won’t win any awards for diversity, but that was unlikely to be on Rattigan’s mind 46 years ago. It’s a uniformly excellent ensemble too, led by Joseph Fiennes as an introspective but passionate Lawrence. Peter Polycarpou and Michael Feast are both very good, and virtually unrecognisable, as Sheik Auda Abu Tayi and the Turkish Military Governor respectively. Paul Freeman is great as General Allenby and Brendan Hooper a delight as Flight Sergeant Thompson. The stage seems much deeper than usual and William Dudley’s superb design features very imposing Egyptian pillars at the back and an open rough sandy stage which can change from British barracks to desert to office with just the minimum of furniture. I thought Adrian Noble’s staging was outstanding.

Well worth suffering Southern Rail’s chaos on a trip down to Chichester, good to see both Fiennes brothers in the same week, and to see the second of three plays by or about Rattigan in a three week period!

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It’s an odd experience seeing a historical drama referencing places we’re now used to seeing regularly on the news. It’s a century since the Arab Revolt for which T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is famous and we appear to be witnessing the very real consequences of the West’s actions at its conclusion.

Howard Brenton’s play is set upon Lawrence’s return. He enlisted in the RAF under a false name in search of anonymity and when he was found out he did the same back in the army where he was once a Colonel. During this time he visited his friends G B and Charlotte Shaw who, with GB’s secretary, was editing his major tome on the Revolt. This is where most of the play is set, with three flashbacks to the Middle East at the inception of the Revolt and at its conclusion. 

He was being pursued by Lowell Thomas, the American journalist and photographer who had accompanied him for much of his time in the Middle East and was now cashing in with a lecture tour, and his former boss Field Marshall Allenby who wanted him back, but he was disillusioned with the politicians’ duplicitous actions (he’d turned down a knighthood, telling the King face to face), failing to deliver on his promise of Arab freedom to Prince Feisal.

It’s a quiet and surprisingly light staging by John Dove. Designer Michael Taylor’s drawing room slides gently and effectively into the wings for the other scenes. I was impressed by Jack Laskey’s enthusiasm and passion as Lawrence. It’s lovely to see Geraldine James again in the pivotal role of Charlotte. There are excellent performances in supporting roles from William Chubb as Allenby, Khalid Laith as Prince Feisal and Rosalind March as GB’s secretary Blanch. 

He was clearly a complex and enigmatic person, loved and admired by many, particularly by Charlotte it seems. I found it a fascinating insight into something and someone I knew little about (my O and A level History syllabus ended in 1914!). I am so enjoying Brenton’s late flowering – historical dramas on apostle Paul, Anne Boleyn, Charles I, the 1st World War, the partition of India, Macmillan and (more topical than historical) Ai WeiWei. Long may it continue.

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On the same day I expressed a view that a lot of new plays at The Globe have disappointed, along comes one of the best new plays they’ve ever done, and one of the best WWI centenary commemorations.

Howard Brenton has chosen to stage the story of a pioneering plastic surgeon called Harold Gillies who developed his skin graft treatments in the first world war, rebuilding the faces of soldiers injured at the front. An eccentric character, he had an alter ego called Dr Scroggy who dealt with his patients morale by dressing up as a caricatured Scotsman to deliver alcohol and cheer after hours. This was as much to do with keeping his own spirits up, having to see his patients return to the front once more.

It also tells the story of one of his patients, Jack Twigg, a working class lad who’s got to Oxford but gives it up to volunteer for service. He’s befriended by a young peer through whom he gets both a prestigious posting as an aide de camp and a posh girl, but he gives up both for glory – twice.

Of course, it’s also telling us a lot about the First World War itself, and that is why the play succeeds – weaving these three threads together to provide a very satisfying dramatic experience, and blending the serious with humour to make it entertaining too.

Like Blue Stockings before it, this period (give or take 20 years!) seems to suit The Globe stage well, evoked simply through costumes, a few beds and lampposts. Jonathan Dove’s direction, using an enlarged stage and platform jutting out into the auditorium, is very effective and no time is wasted. There are some lovely performances, not least from James Garnon as Gilles / Scroggy and Will Featherstone as Twigg. Sam Cox and Paul Rider as a pair of Field Marshall’s are excellent, Patrick Driver and Katy Stephens are great as Twigg’s parents and Catherine Bailey provides a fine characterisation as Penelope, and in particular navigating the transition from good-time posh girl to caring and principled woman.

A charming and deeply satisfying evening, sadly closed but surely to resurface sometime?

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I have to confess I don’t know a lot about Indian independence and partition; the subject of this play. My school history studies ended in 1914 and my interest in ‘current affairs’ didn’t start until the 1960’s. Anything I know about everything that happened in between has come from TV, film and written historical reviews.

Howard Benton focuses on the five or six weeks leading up to partition and independence, when the British PM, Clement Attlee, sent a judge out to determine the borders between India & Pakistan. Cyril Radcliffe had never been to Asia let alone India and knew nothing about maps! The representatives which each interested party appointed to advise him were obviously partisan and somewhat immovable. Brenton speculates humourously that the only thing they would agree on is that ‘flushing’ is better than ‘blocking’ as a solution to Radcliffe’s sickness! The Viceroy, as the King’s representative rather than the government’s, could not and would not become involved. The contentious points were Kashmir, Calcutta and The Punjab.

Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Radcliffe’s decisions became a bit random, but he drew the line. Brenton contests that when he delivered his conclusion, Mountbatten (the Viceroy) pressurised him to change the outcome for The Punjab. He suggests that this was to save his marriage, as his wife had in fact put pressure on him – she was apparently having an affair with Nehru, Indian PM designate, who was the source of this pressure. The play ends at the point where the new Indian and Pakistani leaders address their respective independent nations, with a stunning coup d’theatre to suggest the immediate consequences.

Brenton has written some great historical plays in the last fifteen years, including Never So Good (about the Macmillan years), Anne Boleyn and The Arrest of Ai WeiWei and he says in a programme interview that he tries to be concise, to be a storyteller, with the action in the present, and I think he succeeds in that respect. He achieves a lot in under two hours playing time and though unable to go into great depth he does clarify and illuminate. Given the subject matter, it’s surprisingly light and easy to digest.

The tone of the play does however follow the populist, revisionist tendency to blame everything on the colonial power. He doesn’t give any airtime to alternative solutions, or to the possibility that there were no viable alternatives. Subsequent events, here and in other parts of the world, would suggest that this may well be the case. Colonialist-bashing isn’t really objective enough for credible historical review.

Howard Davies’ smooth flowing production serves the play well. Tim Hatley has designed an elegant and evocative set of carved wooden screens. The ensemble is excellent, with fine central performances from Tom Beard as Radcliffe, Andrew Havill as Mountbatten, Lucy Black as his wife and Silas Carson as Nehru.

It’s great to see full houses for theatre like this. The rest of the run is sold out but, like Ai WeiWei before it, it will be live streamed on Saturday 11th January. Watch it if you can.

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I had two reservations about this. Can you really make an interesting play about the arrest of a Chinese dissident, however important the issues are? Is Hampstead, with its somewhat conservative audience, the right theatre?

Well, the answer to the first question is a definite yes. What Howard Brenton has produced, at Ai Weiwei’s request, based on his account in Barnaby Martin’s book, is a multi-layered piece about freedom of expression, the absurd responses of tyrannies to dissidence, the cruelty & indignity of imprisonment & interrogation and a bit of a debate about art. Silence is used to create tension and illustrate boredom and both humour and humanity pop up in the most unlikely places.

We start with Ai Weiwei’s arrest at the airport, about to board a plane for Hong Kong. In the first segment, we see his initial detention and interrogation by the Beijing police with two young guards suffocating him the rest of the time, occasionally playing with their smartphones, dozing and playing games with one another to relieve their boredom. In the second, we have more interrogation but now in military detention with two soldiers now suffocating in a more formal way including watching him pee. In between, we glimpse some debates between politicians divided in how to deal with it all.

The detention, of course, has the effect of increasing the attention and negative publicity they seek to bury. Even the guards, soldiers & interrogators eventually hint at their personal sympathy. The pointlessness, dullness, cruelty and indignity of it all are clearly and cleverly presented in James Macdonald’s production. If an intelligent Chinese politician saw it, they would surely realise how misguided their policy is. He was of course released, so maybe they did.

Much of the success of the play is down to Benedict Wong’s outstanding central performance. He conveys defiance and determination but also frustration and hopelessness. It’s a nice touch to have the same two actors – Andrew Koji & Christopher Goh – play the young police guards and the well-drilled uniformed soldiers. In Ashley Martin Davies’ excellent design, the ‘cells’ cleverly open up from crates manoeuvred by ‘extras’ and giant painted scrolls and ornamental trees appear for the brief exchanges between politicians.

Despite its relatively short running time, and fewer words than most plays, it covers a lot of ground effectively and in depth. With regard to the second question, though, I do think its in the wrong theatre playing to the wrong audience. This is a Tricycle play on the Hampstead stage, but still, it’s on a stage and should be seen. I now have to reconcile my view of it all with two impending visits to China!

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The story of the English Civil War, and in particular Charles I’s trail and execution, seemed like an excellent subject for playwright Howard Brenton who has had such success with both recent history (Macmillan in ‘Never So Good’) and history of the same period (‘Anne Boleyn’) but I’m afraid this play doesn’t really stand up to either.

The action is concentrated into a small period leading up to, during and after the trial and into a limited number of locations so it doesn’t have the epic scale the events perhaps deserve. It also doesn’t have the depth of both story and characterisation that the subject deserves; it felt like he had a great idea but got a bit bored with it before he was through.

The first half is particularly slow, though things do pick up in the trial scenes in Act II. There is, however, something uneven about the evening and it could do with a lot more pace. This is unusual for director Howard Davies who’s always seemed to me to be the master of pace.

I’m not sure it gained much from the traverse staging (and those in the first couple of rows on both sides would probably say it lost a lot for them in the trail scenes as they appeared to be looking at the backs of the parliamentarians) or indeed Ashley Martin-Davies’ design. The idea to dress everyone in modern dress except Charles is a bit puzzling and everyone and everything in black and grey made for a somewhat drab experience.

Mark Gatiss is perfectly good as Charles (though I understand he’s about a foot too tall if you want to be historically accurate!) and Douglas Henshall is fine as Cromwell. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with the performances, though none excited me.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I left the theatre feeling very indifferent about the play and the production, I’m afraid.

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