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Howard Brenton - Writing Anne Boleyn

History's a funny thing for Howard Brenton. As The Globe's touring 
revival of of Anne Boleyn, the veteran playwright's most recent 
original work arrives in Edinburgh this week, Brenton's depiction of 
Henry VIII's second and most misunderstood wife is a deeply serious 
study of a woman whose apparent flirtation with then outlawed 
Protestantism suggested a steely revolutionary zeal. By juxtaposing 
Anne's story with that of a wilfully outrageous James V1, himself in 
the throes of political intrigue even as he investigates Anne's legacy, 
the portrait that emerges of this most turbulent period of English and 
Scottish history is more audacious than most.

I'd wanted to write something about the Tudors for years,” says 
Brenton on a break from work on his next play, “but I couldn't find a 
way in. I had a mad idea to do something called Tudor Rose, and have 
one actress play all the monarchs, but I couldn't make it work. Then 
the Globe asked me to write something about the King James bible, and I 
had this idea about James going off on a kind of ghost hunt to find out 
about Anne's past achievements, and something clicked. Plays come out 
of the woods in that way, where you try to get to the light.

But the Tudors has become like a foundation story of England now. 
They're like an ancient Greece to us. All the stories of Bloody Mary 
and all the rest have become very potent and very powerful. On one 
level they're all about the founding of modern England, or they may go 
deeper than that. Anne Boleyn, for instance, has as huge fan-base among 
young women. People tend to see her as a sexual predator, and she may 
well have been that, but she was so much more. To become a secret 
Protestant was a very brave thing to do, and I began to see her as 
someone who was very courageous, and that surprised me.”

The presence of James VI is particularly interesting for the play's 
only Scottish dates, and in many ways Brenton's play is as much his as 
it is Anne's. His portrayal, as an out-to-shock cross-dresser who at 
one point pulls on Anne's left-behind frock, looks more Rocky Horror 
than historical romp.

James came from a very dangerous world,” according to Brenton. “It was 
known that he had a very strange way of speaking, and he said some 
outrageous things that really shocked people. Some of the lines in the 
play are things that he actually said. He used this strange way of 
speaking to mask himself from others, but he was a very brilliant man. 
He was gay, and he was a modern man, and he realised that he must have 
a settlement, which later failed, of course, but there was something 
really disruptive about him, which is probably why I began to like him 
so much.”

As one of the post 1968 cadre of English playwrights whose 
politically-based works went beyond fringe theatre to storm the 
barricades of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, 
Brenton has come a long way since making his professional stage debut 
at the Royal Court in 1966 with It's My Criminal. In 1968 Brenton 
joined the Brighton Combination collective as a writer and actor, then 
joined Portable Theatre, co-founded by David Hare, a year later.
It was  throughout the 1970s when Brenton really found his stride, 
when, alongside peers including Hare, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, 
Snoo Wilson and others, he attempted to write epic state of the nation 
plays from a leftist historical standpoint. 

The first of these, Magnificence, appeared in 1973, and told a still pertinent tale of 
squat-dwelling terrorists and a Conservative MP. Brassneck, co-written 
with Hare, appeared the same year. The Churchill Play and Weapons of 
Happiness followed, while Epsom Downs was penned for Max Stafford 
Clark's Joint Stock company.
In 1980, The Romans in Britain appeared at the National Theatre. The 
play contrasted Julius Caesar's invasion of Celtic Britain with both 
the Saxon invasion of Roman-Celtic Britain and the then current British 
presence in Northern Ireland. It caused a storm when a scene of anal 
rape provoked a private prosecution by moral decency campaigner Mary 
Whitehouse. While the action failed, The Romans in Britain didn't 
receive a second production until 2006, while Brenton wasn't 
commissioned by the National Theatre again until 2005.

Inbetween, Brenton collaborated with Hare again on the newspaper-based 
Pravda, co-wrote several pieces with another 1968 veteran, Tariq Ali, 
and, as with many of his fellow writers, found his leftist stance 
usurped in the 1990s. Politically, the triumphalism of a post Berlin 
Wall age made the enemy harder to spot, while, theatrically, the 
so-called in-yer-face generation of writers captured the Zeitgeist of 

I suppose you went in phases,” Brenton says, curiously looking at 
himself in the second person. “In the 70s you were an attack dog during 
a time when you really felt there could've been a revolution in France, 
but didn't happen. The far left failed, and everything congealed, so 
this dream of open living was lost in a druggy nightmare. Then I became 
a more mainstream writer, when, while not an attack dog,you could still 
write these state of the nation plays. That went bust in 1989 and 1990, 
and then I went to Moscow, which was awful.”

The 1990s, Brenton admits, “were very difficult. I went really out of 
fashion as this other bunch came along, and I only found my feet again 
about ten years ago, but on a broader plane, trying to understand the 

In the early noughties, Brenton wrote thirteen episodes of Spooks, the 
spy-based TV drama with a quietly subversive up-to-the-minute agenda. 
Then came Paul, about Paul the Apostle, and, for the Globe, In 
Extremis, a twelfth century epic that explored ideas of religion 
perhaps sired in Brenton's Methodist upbringing by his minister father. 
Never So Good explored the life of post World War Two Conservative 
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, while a translation of Buchner's 
Danton's Death and an adaptation of Robert Tressell's The 
Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists appeared the same year as Anne Boleyn.
For all Brenton seems revitalised, any suggestion that today's climate 
of recession, a right wing government and the resulting wave of protest 
are a case of things moving full circle to something akin to the spirit 
of '68, this isn't something Brenton agrees with.

In the 70s and 80s I did this huge amount of stuff in what I suppose 
was my heyday,” Brenton says, “and back then the world felt clearer. It 
was going very much to the bad, Thatcher was in power, and I felt very 
much like an oppositional writer. What's happening now is that the 
capitalist system seems to be collapsing in Europe, but I don't know 
how serious it is. Is it over? Or is it just going to be this dreadful 
drizzly politics?”

Either way, Brenton observes that “People are getting back to attack 
dog writing,” even if he won't necessarily joining in. “Your 
perspective changes,” he insists, “but your opinions don't. I've worked 
out religion, now, I think. In my late 60s, after writing five plays on 
the trot set in the past,  I've finally come to terms with the 
religious background that I left, so it's probably time to get back to 
writing about now. I'm almost 70, I have arthritis, and the NHS is 
falling to bits. I know a lot about that, so maybe I'll write about 
that next.”

Anne Boleyn, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, May 8th-12th

The Herald, May 8th 2012


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