Howard Brenton (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Howard Brenton’s career as a playwright encompasses an extraordinary variety of subjects and many glittering successes, from Pravda and The Romans in Britain to Paul and Never So Good. But, as he tells theatre journalist Al Senter, there have been tricky times too, and he owes the revival of his career to a stint on TV’s Spooks

As a playwright, Howard Brenton has long been associated with a certain kind of politicised, radical and uncompromising sensibility. It’s a view epitomised by his state-of-the-nation collaborations with David Hare (Brassneck and Pravda), his work with Joint Stock (Epsom Downs) and his succès de scandale, The Romans in Britain, which Mary Whitehouse tried – and failed – to close down by launching a criminal prosecution.

So it comes as a shock to discover that, in person, Brenton has a genial charm that belies his reputation and his formidable oeuvre. He has an extensive fund of stories, which he plunders with many a gleeful chuckle. And what is more, he credits his survival as a writer to his work on the television espionage series Spooks.

‘The 1990s were not a good time for me,’ he recalls. ‘There were new people running the Royal Court [which had staged several of his plays, including Magnificence, Greenland, and Berlin Bertie], and I was out of fashion at the National [where Pravda and Romans in Britain had been staged].

‘I’d written a version of Goethe’s Faust for Michael Bogdanov and the RSC, but there was nothing else being offered, and I could see that I was really in trouble. I taught for a while in America and then I wrote a play for RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and it was at a performance of this play at RADA that I met the producer Jane Featherstone, who was putting together a team for what turned out to be Spooks. There was a scene in the play that satirised spies, and Jane asked me if I’d be interested in writing a trial episode – which I did.’

Brenton went on to become a lead writer on the BBC One drama series, penning thirteen episodes between 2002 and 2005, and winning a BAFTA for Best Drama Series in 2003.

‘In a sense Spooks was my rebirth, and it was a tremendous source of discipline for me. Because I was so much older than everybody else on the show, nobody knew me and it meant that I didn’t bring any baggage to the party. There were no pre-conceptions.

‘Then I got a call from Nick Hytner at the National, who’d seen one of my Spooks episodes. He asked me why I wasn’t writing for the theatre, and commissioned a play from me that became Paul.’

That play, staged at the National Theatre in 2005, was a stunning return to form. A provocative inquiry into the life of the apostle Paul, it questions the whole basis of Christianity by presenting Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a trick, and even overturning the received facts about Jesus’s death on the cross.

Adam Godley in Howard Brenton’s Paul at the National Theatre, 2005 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

In the thirteen years since Paul was premiered, Brenton has enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained creativity, averaging a play a year – no mean feat for a playwright, especially one whose imaginative scope and historical subject matter make you think he must have permanent residence at the British Library. Amongst those plays are major achievements such as Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008), about Harold Macmillan and the decline of British imperial power; Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010), about Henry VIII’s second wife and her reckless, passionate espousal of the Protestant Reformation; 55 Days (Hampstead Theatre, 2012), about Oliver Cromwell and the momentous decision to execute King Charles I; Drawing the Line (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the partition of India; and Lawrence After Arabia (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about T.E. Lawrence and his struggle to divest himself of the mythology surrounding him.

There are also such glittering gems as In Extremis (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2006, later revived as Eternal Love), about the 12th-century love affair between Abelard and Heloise; #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the imprisonment of the Chinese artist by state authorities; The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman, 2010), an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s classic and very funny novel about the working lives of a group of housepainters; and The Blinding Light (Jermyn Street Theatre, 2017), about Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s so-called ‘Inferno’ period, when he took leave of his senses and devoted himself to the practise of alchemy.

Iranian Nights by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, the first of Brenton’s plays to be published by Nick Hern Books

All of those plays and more have been published by Nick Hern Books. Brenton has had a working relationship with Nick Hern since Hern was drama editor at Methuen Drama, which published Brenton’s early plays. When Hern, increasingly dismayed at the way Methuen was being handled by a series of consortia, broke away in 1988 to form his own imprint, Brenton went with him, one of a quartet of writers that also included Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Nicholas Wright. It was a vote of confidence in his editor, and without it, Nick Hern Books might well not have survived. One of the first titles published by the fledgling imprint was Brenton’s Iranian Nights, written with Tariq Ali and premiered at the Royal Court in 1989. ‘I remember going to see Nick when he was part of Random House,’ recalls Brenton. ‘I have a vivid memory of walking down an endless corridor in a building on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and then finding Nick in a corner at the end of it.’ Small beginnings, but Brenton has stuck with his editor, praising his habit of plain-speaking whenever they are discussing one of his plays.

Howard Brenton (left) with Nick Hern (centre) and Nicholas Wright (right) at the Nick Hern Books 30th anniversary party in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Brenton is charmingly vague about the number of plays he’s actually written – he’ll leave that to the theatre historians. Meanwhile, it’s the real business of history, the stuff that changes people’s lives, that interests him.

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton, published by Nick Hern Books

‘I like setting my plays at times of crisis, at times of great social change,’ he says. ‘I’m also a great believer in the “Schiller Manoeuvre”. In his play Maria Stuart, Friedrich Schiller brings together Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in a pivotal scene, despite the fact that in real life they never met. I did the same in my play Anne Boleyn, bringing together Anne and William Tyndale, although they too never met.’

As a dramatist, Brenton is clearly drawn to characters who, grappling with the big ideas of their day, find their idealism compromised by the messy business of reality: Oliver Cromwell  in 55 Days, trying to reconcile revolutionary fervour with constitutional necessity, and finding himself having to compromise with a king who will do no such thing; Cyril Radcliffe, the lawyer who, in Drawing the Line, is given six weeks to draw the border that will divide the Indian sub-continent in two and determine the fate of millions of people; Harold Macmillan, who, in Never So Good, finds himself woefully out of his depth as an empire begins to crumble around him; and Paul, the erstwhile scourge of Christians who becomes one of Christ’s most devout disciples. ‘I call them “dirty saints”,’ says Brenton: those who reach for the stars, despite having feet of clay.

Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National Theatre, 2008 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

He is responsible for one of the most charismatic figures in modern drama, the monstrous media tycoon Lambert Le Roux in Pravda, co-written with David Hare. The mesmerising performance by Anthony Hopkins in the 1985 National Theatre production  became, in retrospect, a dry run for Hopkins’ portrayal of another monster: Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.

‘With Pravda, something happened that can occur with writers and their characters. We had intended to do a version of Faust, with Andrew the newspaper editor tempted by Le Roux as Mephistopheles; but we fell in love with Lambert in the way that Shakespeare makes audiences complicit with Richard III or Macbeth.’

Brenton recalls, too, how the play was steered towards its eventual form through the intervention of Peter Hall, who was then running the National Theatre. ‘David [Hare] and I rented a flat in Brighton, and every Monday I’d take the train to Brighton and David would drive down and we’d start by telling each other our favourite jokes. Yet at the dress rehearsal the play barely got a laugh. So then Peter Hall gave us a very useful note. He advised us to “meet the Monster plot”. In other words, the play had a tremendous appetite for plot, so we should feed it accordingly.’

Anthony Hopkins (left) in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda at the National Theatre, 1985 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Perhaps this ability to handle the complexities of plot – not always a component of the modern playwright’s skill set – is one of the reasons Brenton succeeded in the plot-hungry environment of the television drama series.

‘I firmly believe that a television audience will accept complex ideas if the quality of the writing is good enough,’ he argues. ‘After Spooks, I was something of a Golden Boy. I was commissioned to tour all over China for one project, and there was also a Hollywood movie and a four-part television series that never got made. I recently spoke to one of our most successful writers in theatre, films and television, and he estimates that only one in three of his projects ever gets made.’ This must be one of the most maddening aspect of Brenton’s trade, and yet he dismisses it with a shrug. Perhaps, for a writer of his prolific qualities, it poses no real problem. More likely, he’s learned how to cope with the exigencies of the business and is happiest when he’s hard at work on a new play. He jokingly refers to himself when he’s at work as ‘The Man in the Bunker’. He insists, however, that he’s no workaholic.

‘I remember Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, remarking that Shaw, for all his massive output, was actually comparatively lazy, and would prefer to waste his time on some minor pursuit rather that getting on with the job in hand. We writers refer to this phenomenon as “Teach Yourself Spanish” syndrome. I’m certainly very lazy: work for me comes in spasms.’

Brenton is currently writing a new play for Hampstead Theatre, and there will be a revival next year of his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, about the wartime Government’s requisitioning of local businesses in Southampton to use as covert factories for the production of Spitfires. The play was commissioned to open Southampton’s new theatre, NST City, where it premiered in February 2018.

Spasmodic or otherwise, let’s hope that Brenton won’t have cause to venture far from the Bunker in future.

Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory at NST City, Southampton, 2018 (photo by Manuel Harlan)


Many of Howard Brenton’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, which will be revived at NST City, Southampton, in January 2019.

For a full list of Brenton’s plays published by Nick Hern Books, visit our website here, where they are available in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne. Catch up with them all here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

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Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

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‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.