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Howard Brenton, Interview: ‘Rome had crazed emperors, now America has one as it declines towards its fall.’

As the great Howard Brenton’s new play The Blinding Light arrives in the West End, we had a chat about age, Trump, being a writer and Strindberg.

At a British theatre-lover’s dream dinner party, Howard Brenton should be the first guest on the list. His dozens of plays include Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, In Extremis and Laurence After Arabia. Brenton has also published a novel and written for TV, including Spooks. He is one of theatre’s best people.

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Howard Brenton in rehearsals

We are talking during a week of rehearsals for The Blinding Light. Brenton gives no hint of anything readily except the sharpest mind and an unwavering honesty.

How is 2017 treating him, I ask? “Very well,” he says. “Though I’ve got old-man-in-a-hurry-itis – mid-seventies, so much I want to write, a sense of time running out.”

The Blinding Light is a 90-minute thriller about Strindberg’s Inferno period and charts Strindberg’s notorious breakdown in Paris in 1896, known as his ‘Inferno period’. The production is the first play of Tom Littler’s debut season at Jermyn St Theatre and a world premiere.

What does he like about Jermyn St Theatre? “It’s a very romantic theatre, tiny but in the middle of the West End. It has a great potential to radiate out invention and new work, says Brenton. “It’s also just about the same size as Strindberg’s Intimate Theatre in Stockholm – and look what that achieved!”

Who, I wonder, inspires him? “The conductor Daniel Barenboim. He’s a great musician – his first recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, made in his twenties, is an evergreen classic and he’s become the greatest living Wagner conductor,” he says quickly. “He’s Jewish and, with the Palestinian activist and scholar Edward Said, he founded the wonderful East-West Divan orchestra, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians. Some may call him naive but I love his big heartedness, his faith that art can heal.”

Stindberg laid the foundations for modern drama and Brenton speaks with authority on the Scandinavian master. A born theatre-buff – he reels off a concise history of the Swedish dramatist. “Strindberg gave us two traditions, often at war with each other. His work is, roughly speaking, in two periods, either side of his notorious breakdown in Paris in 1896, his ‘Inferno period’ – the subject of The Blinding Light’,” he explains.

“Before that crisis he developed an intense naturalism in plays like ‘The Father’, ‘Creditors’ and, most famously, ‘Miss Julie’. Then, having abandoned the theatre for four years, he began a series of fantastical plays which founded modern expressionism – the great examples are ‘A Dream Play’, ‘The Ghost Sonata’ and the magnificent, all but unstageable, ‘To Damascus’. He went from one extreme to another – which was typical of him,” he goes on, “but he always wanted to make the theatre more real, at first by being true to the minutiae of everyday life – the famous cooking on stage in ‘Miss Julie’– then by trying to stage psychological states so vividly you think you are dreaming wide awake.  By ‘realist’ or ‘expressionist’ means he wanted audiences to see the world in a new light …  the Strindberg Project.”

His mood is serious, too, when we talk about Donald Trump; this is the week that the president’s business panel resigned. Then the arts and humanities. Then he sacked the lot. “Rome had crazed emperors, now America has one as it declines towards its fall. We’ll get dragged down with it unless we do something radical.”

What next for this remarkable playwright? “I’ve two big new plays going on in the new year, one at Hampstead Theatre and the other opening the new Nuffield Theatre Southampton. So, alongside The Blinding Light this is a hectic Summer of discussions with directors, rewrites and casting. I’m a very lucky playwright.”

Is it easy being a writer, I ask. “Yes,” he smiles. “The stress will, I’m sure, finally do me in but I love it so.”

The Blinding Light runs at Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 14 October.


Box office: 020-7287 2875.