Spotlight On… Writer of Magnificence, Howard Brenton

Magnificence is opening at Finborough Theatre on Tuesday 25 October and stays there until Saturday 19 November 2016: 

To book tickets visit this link:

I chatted to Writer of the piece, Howard Brenton…

Thanks for talking to Break A Leg, tell me about Magnificence and the themes and issues covered.

The play was written in 1973. It’s a tragi-comedy of perhaps naïve but enlightened young people who want to make a better world. They launch a protest that goes badly wrong. As a consequence, one of them descends on a path to an act of terrorism which also goes wrong – absurdly and tragically.

Amongst young leftwing activists in the early 1970s a debate was raging. It was about ‘direct action’: you say you are for revolutionary change but that’s just words, what are you prepared to do? ‘Direct action’ could mean going on a demonstration, occupying a building…but would you fight? Would you take up the gun? The Baeder Meinhof Red Army Fraction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy crossed that line.   So activists were getting caught in a vicious kind of political psycho-drama. I felt the pressure of it myself and hated it going round and round in my head… ‘deeds not words, do ends justify means’… a tightening spiral. So the play was written to cut the knot and sort myself out. I wrote it with affection for people I knew on the ‘far left’ and with an anger I shared with them about the state of our country. But socialism is democratic or it is nothing. Reader, I joined the Labour Party.

What was your inspiration for the play?

I was reading the great Serbian poet, Vasko Popa, and came across the line, “… the bright weapons of happiness/All wait only for a sign”. It hit me like a thunderbolt. Weapons of happiness. What are they? And the story of the play came me.

Is it translating well from page to stage?

Yes, it’s 43 years old but in rehearsals it plays very well.   There are some anachronisms of course but surprisingly few are in the language. It’s a bit of a shock to realise there was a drive in the Metropolitan Police Force toward a liberal policing policy that the play has fun with – whatever happened to all that? It also reveals a country much poorer than it is now – though that, I fear, may change.

How is the space lending itself to the piece?

Well, the play was originally written for the main stage at The Royal Court theatre with big effects: a window that is smashed, a full sized punt for a scene on a river, and at one point a character enters driving a motorized, sit-on lawn mower!   So it’s more a matter of translating a play written for a big stage to the intimate Finborough.   A motorised lawn mower would just about fill the entire performing space, and anyway you’d never get it up the stairs! But theatre’s magical, you can find a way of doing anything, anywhere. And the production being planned by Joshua Roche and his team is indeed full of delightful, simple, theatrical magic.

What do you hope the audience will take away from the production?

You never know what an audience will make of a play. But it must entertain. If it doesn’t they’ll only take away a memory of a bad evening! So even if the play has serious things to dramatise – as mine does – it must be fun. Even if a hero lies dead at the end (find out if mine does or not!).

Finally, do you have any advice for budding writers?

This seems simple but, whatever you’re writing, finish it. Don’t give up. You may think you’re stuck but if you persist your story may suddenly transform in ways you didn’t expect. So get to the end. You can then burn it if you wish. And follow the beat of your own drum.

Thanks so much for the interview, Howard, great advice, too!

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