Howard Brenton smiles, places his coffee cup on the table and says, with the firmness of a man screwing the lid back on the biscuit barrel, “It’s my last religious play.”
This is quite some statement. There was a time when the idea that Brenton, an atheist, committed socialist and blistering political commentator, could write one religious play would have been surprising enough, let alone his talking about its being his “last” one. Brenton, who has written or co-written more than 40 works for the stage, emerged in the 1970s as one of a generation of English playwrights who created epic, ambitious drama about the state of the nation. Together with David Hare he wrote the acerbic and prescient satire Pravda (1985) about a newspaper tycoon. Before that, in 1982, he had found himself at the centre of a legal storm when his 1980 play The Romans in Britain attracted the opprobrium of morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse for a scene in which a Roman soldier raped a Druid.
Yet when he returned to the National Theatre some 25 years after that gruelling episode, it was with Paul, a thoughtful exploration of the significance of St Paul. If that weren’t startling enough, he moved on to a sympathetic study of the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, who held that office from 1957 to 1963. Most recently his play about Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (2010), depicted her as a key player in the Reformation. His new play, 55 Days, which opens at London’s Hampstead Theatre this month, picks up on English history a century later, at the crux of the English civil war, and charts the turbulent lead-up to the execution of Charles I after the victory of Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarian forces.
“One thing that I have tried to dramatise is that they were all deeply religious men – in a way that’s hard for us to grasp,” he says of 55 Days. “Charles believed that God had given him this burden and it was impossible for him to put it down – which is what the parliamentarians were asking him. And Cromwell was forever waiting for divine guidance.”
Of his five most recent plays, four have been about religion and all have been historical. So why has he been keeping such unexpected company?
“I wrote Paul to say I must understand my Methodist upbringing,” Brenton says simply. His father was a Methodist minister and the playwright has said that his childhood taught him to “speak from the heart” and gave him a keen awareness of the transformative power of faith.
“At that time all the Islamic problems were really getting going and the questions of fanatical faith. And I thought, ‘I think I understand about faith.’ There’s that strange duality: that whatever the evidence, faith remains. Faith overcomes any objections; faith remoulds experience. So I wrote Paul to try and explore the psychology in action.
“It’s something to do with consciousness and how we turn everything into metaphor. What you actually experience can be twisted by what you believe or want to believe in the most extraordinary way. Love can do that too – and political conviction.”
Paul wasn’t any kind of Damascene conversion for its author but it did demonstrate his deep understanding of the need for belief. And each of his recent plays has offered a sympathetic engagement with individuals of conscience grappling with seismic shifts of perspective.
“I’m fascinated by powerful politicians who are caught in their time and struggle to deal with it,” says Brenton. “That’s why I was so interested in Macmillan. People on the left said, ‘Why are you writing about him, is he a hero of yours?’ And in a way he became a hero as I wrote, because he was a man in step with his time, then, when his final moment of power came, he was profoundly out of step.”
Brenton is drawn to characters who are confronted by “the future breaking out too early”. In 55 Days he depicts his protagonists improvising a way forward as the future shape of the country hangs in the balance. “Cromwell and the parliamentarians didn’t have the phrase ‘constitutional monarchy’,” he says, “they were struggling to express what they were proposing.” But he was struck by the boldness of their thinking. “It was the beginning of the modern world, really. The parliamentarians failed in the end but some decades later nearly everything Cromwell wanted was in place. Modern Britain started then. But it’s not really on our radar, the way the French Revolution is on every Frenchman’s radar, left or right.”
Each of his recent history plays represents a reckoning: an opportunity to survey how we arrived at where we are today and a prism through which to examine our own time. “This history play [55 Days] asks, ‘Well, what is the bedrock of the country we’re living in? Is it being fractured by what we’re doing at the moment?’”
For someone who writes with relish about such thorny subjects, Brenton is remarkably easy-going company. He is charming and convivial, prone to stopping mid-sentence to laugh out loud. He’s nearly 70, a fact he mentions, rather dolefully, several times. When I ask him whether he would define himself as a Roundhead or a Cavalier, his reply is, “I’m a theatre- and wine-loving republican.”
This sense of mischief often spills into his plays. He talks cheerfully about taking liberties in historical plays to get at the truth and he revels in the fray, as idealists and pragmatists, revolutionaries and moderates battle it out. “What’s great for a playwright is that they [Cromwell et al] were all at each other’s throats.”
Intrigue is a recurrent theme. From 2002 to 2005 Brenton wrote 13 episodes of the television spy drama Spooks, which became cult watching for its blend of stylish silliness and astute political comment. Brenton describes it, with affection, as “the poetry of tosh”, adding that “there was oddly a lot of truth mixed up in the mayhem”.
So is he not tempted to leave off history and write more directly about current affairs? If tests of faith interest him, there is no shortage of material in contemporary politics.
“We certainly need an economic visionary today,” he agrees. “Someone with a sense of the future … Everyone is caught in reflecting mirrors. They seem like rabbits in the headlights. All the major political parties have to get out of this bind about how they operate and how they think: the short-termism, the 24-hour news cycle, the leaks. They can’t cut through it and they can’t deal with the profound economic crisis because of it.”
Yet he is resisting the urge to write satire, which he suspects plays to the converted, or even to scrutinise those in power. “My instinct is to leave the big arenas, to go low on the ground and dramatise people behaving in unlikely, hopeful ways while they’re in terrible situations.”
He says he has one more history play to write: a first world war play for 2014. “But I’m going back to my own time now,” he adds, wryly. “I think I must.”
‘55 Days’, Hampstead Theatre, London, October 18-November 24, www.hampsteadtheatre.com