A medieval light on the modern world

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I’ve got old-man-in-a-hurry-itis,” says Howard Brenton as he reflects on an exceptionally busy year. An incendiary political playwright, he dominated the 1970s and 1980s with controversial plays such as The Romans in Britain and The Churchill Play. However, in the 1990s he virtually disappeared. After the Berlin Wall had fallen and the end of history had been announced, there seemed to be little room for the grand and volatile theatre that had become his trademark.

But now British stages are again hosting the aggressive, intelligent and expletive-ridden lyricism of his work. In February, the Sheffield Crucible staged The Romans in Britain, and next month his 1985 hit Pravda – co-written with David Hare – will open as part of Jonathan Church’s debut season at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

As well as these revivals, there is new work. In September last year, the National Theatre produced Paul, a secular take on the story of St Paul; and this week, another new piece, In Extremis, opens at Shakespeare’s Globe.

This latest play documents the tragicomic life of Peter Abelard, the radical 12th-century French theologian. Abelard was famous for two things – he argued that reason was the best way to get closer to God, and he had an infamous affair with Heloise, a young female student. Unsurprisingly this created a conflict between him and church authorities – embodied in the script as Bernard of Clairveaux. The play depicts a life-story that was both farcical and violent.

Coming immediately after Paul, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this show demonstrates that religion is a relatively recent preoccupation for Brenton. But, as he points out, he wrote the script back in 1997 for some of his students while working as a writer in residence at a university in California. “I wanted to write a European play to strike a blow for the enlightenment,” he says. “It was a response to the big new-age movement there that hung over the place like a neon cloud, and of course also to the rise of the New [Christian] Right.”

Faith has in fact always been a keen interest of Brenton’s. He was born in 1942 to a father who was a Methodist minister, and has what he describes as “a religious background”. “I’ve always wanted to try and really get there,” he says, but adds: “I didn’t want to write about my father; his life was extraordinary really, but I could never write about that.”

In the current political climate however, the question of religion forces itself on anyone who wants to engage with world events. Brenton is forthright about this. “I’m worried about the force of these racist attitudes towards Islam, and this hateful belief in a ‘clash of civilisations’,” he says. He is quick to point out that he does not see his play as being anti-religious as such. Rather, his aim is to show that we are not engaged in a battle with any specific religion, but with fundamentalism – whether Christian or Islamic – in general, and that we have been here before.

“I thought, well, if you look back in European history we’ve been there in several historical periods,” he says. Abelard and Bernard’s conflict was “when it first really appeared in our history – as Bernard’s fundamentalism clashed with the enlightened Christianity of Abelard”.

Aside from their often controversial nature, Brenton’s plays are also striking for the grand scale on which they work. He acknowledges that this is a form that is unpopular with many contemporary playwrights, and argues that the difference stems from two fundamentally different perspectives on humanity.

Most writers these days, he says, take a “Freudian, psychological view of human nature”. They see the individual as being like an “onion” – made up of multiple layers – and “tend to write plays of revelation in which the layers are stripped away”. Brenton cites Ibsen’s Ghosts as a prime example – “At the end, you think ‘Oh my God! His father had syphilis, that explains everything!’” – and adds that “if you think like that, you’re going to write small-scale plays”. While conceding that Ibsen was a great playwright, he describes this approach as the tabloidesque “celebrity view”, which sees “people as individuals, with individual flaws and dirty secrets which have to be revealed”.

By contrast, his own approach to the human condition focuses on action within society. “We are what we do”, he says, “we make our own lives either by accident or will.” Life is made up“of crucial moments where you try to do something or you don’t do something”. In theatrical terms, this view leads you “into an epic form, where you have to stage lots of scenes in order to give time for a life to develop”. He paraphrases Marx: “It’s true that we make our own history, but we don’t always make it as we hope or please.”

And this, he says, is exactly what happens in In Extremis: “Abelard was trying to make his own history, but it didn’t turn out as he thought it would. Rather, it descended into horror and farce . . . so he remakes it and becomes a great philosopher and monk, but then this gets him shut up in a monastery and excommunicated.” For Brenton, Abelard’s life is best understood through the circumstances in which he lived, rather than his own psychological make-up.

When we find ourselves being directly affected by events on the other side of the globe, an exclusive focus on the individual can seem profoundly inadequate as a way of understanding our world. So it is not surprising that there is renewed interest in the kind of work he creates. He reveals that he has been commissioned by Nicolas Hytner to write another new play for the National – this time for the Olivier stage. Though he won’t disclose what it is about, he says: “I feel as if I’m moving towards some final crazy last period.” It will be fascinating to see what it holds.

‘In Extremis’ is at Shakespeare’s Globe from August 27 until October 7. Tel 20 7401 9919

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