Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton, extended Q&A interview for The Arts Desk

HOWARD BRENTON – THEARTSDESK – Carole Woddis    July 13, 2010

Howard Brenton (b: 1942) is always in the process of being `rediscovered’. Yet Brenton has been at the heart of British theatrical life for the past forty years, since his debut in 1969 with Christie in Love. True he has had the odd decade out of the theatrical limelight – `went out of fashion’ in his own phrase – when he just happened to pen some of the best, liveliest scripts on television with the BBC’s spy drama series, Spooks (2002-2005).

Brenton’s play tally now amounts to 40 plays, either alone or often in collaboration – David Hare and Tariq Ali being two principal and long-standing partners. He has been satirist, conscience pricker, general disturber of the status quo and stirrer up of nasties in the woodshed, happily firing off sardonic exocets at the Establishment.

He has been performed by the National, the RSC, the Royal Court and is a favourite in student circles but he remains determinedly independent, owner of an unsurpassed, sometimes wildly intractable, racing imagination and furious intelligence.

As a confirmed socialist, his plays, be they looking at the penal system (Christie in Love), Derby Day (Epsom Downs), the Byron and Shelley coterie (Bloody Poetry), press moguls (Pravda), the implosion of the Soviet Union (Moscow Gold), Abelard and Heloise (In Extremis) and even a reclamation of Harold Macmillan in Never So Good and St Paul in Paul have consistently been concerned about the forces and pressures in society that shape, distort and sustain us.

Any resumé of Brenton’s career unfortunately must mention the ridiculous furore and `controversy’ set off by the `obscenity’ case brought by Mary Whitehouse over his play, The Romans in Britain (1980) in which certain parallels were made between the Roman invasion of Britain and England’s relationship to Ireland. Roman soldiers were seen to `rape’ a Druid. Presented at the National Theatre, directed by Michael Bogdanov, the prosecution fizzled out: there was no case to answer.

As a sideshow, it merely serves to re-emphasise the mighty canon of work Brenton has produced over the years in which the defining characteristic, apparent in every word uttered in the interview below, expresses the relish and vigour with which Brenton, now in his late 60s, continues to engage with the world with glorious irreverence and fervour. Explosions of laughter at his own and the world’s absurdity would regularly and almost, it seemed, uncontrollably burst from him.

With three plays scripted by him opening within a few weeks of each other – an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s working class classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre); a revision of his own earlier translation of Georg Bûchner’s Danton’s Death (National Theatre) and a new play, Anne Boleyn, opening at Shakespeare’s Globe in which the second wife of Henry VIII is reclaimed as a religious reformer and central to the English Reformation – people are once again saying, `Howard Brenton. Ah. Where’s he been’?

For Brenton’s own re-assessment of The Romans in Britain episode, see TAD colleague Aleks Sierz’s interview on the audio website, TheatreVoice at in its Archive section.

Carole Woddis: you’ve written several plays with David Hare. Lay By in 1971, England’s Ireland 1972, Brassneck in 1973, Deeds in 1978. With Pravda (1985), do you think you were prescient in what you saw about the British press?

Howard Brenton: not prescient enough. We couldn’t have foreseen the satellite development. There was a joke in the play, when a cricketer comes on dressed in ludicrously bright cricket gear and the audience fell about in 1985. Watching England-Australia yesterday, there were Lambert LeRoux colours all over the place.

what made you and David start on that particular subject?

Well, it’s how collaborations work, we both wanted to see a show about something but no one has written it. And you feel, `I can’t really do this myself’.

You’d worked with David before with Portable Theatre in 1969.

Yes, so we said let’s do it together. We did, very quickly. Shows are best done very quickly.

how long did it take to write?

The first draft took three weeks. We rented a flat down in Brighton. We’d meet and stay two or three nights a week in this flat and work like crazy and then leave. I don’t know what people around thought.

A bit like The Odd Couple!

But then we played a very silly and sinister game. We began assuming Irish accents. But it wasn’t funny because then they bombed the Grand Hotel while we were writing Pravda. So we stopped doing that. Schoolboy joke. I remember we went down to look at it one night after we’d been writing all day, at this incredible (emphasis) sight. The front of the hotel split (stress).

What were your feelings at that time because you very much on the Left, weren’t you?

You had the idea, anything could happen which we hadn’t felt for some time. That’s the feeling you had in the late ‘60s. The world could change around you, for good or for bad in a way that you can’t really foretell. It was ’84 when we were writing it, it went on in ‘85.

In the 1960s I was living in the States and so I encountered a lot of anti-Vietnam people.

I came out of my middle class shell then but the question was, would you go to the barricades, Carole, would you shoot? And I know that at that time, there was just no way I could do that. Did you ever have a moment like that?

Well, yes, there was a horrible psycho-drama on the Left which I eventually wrote a play about to get rid of in myself, called Magnificence, 1973, at the Royal Court. That was the psycho-drama of the libertarian Left, the hippy libertarian Left which had gone terrorist really, with the angry Brigade and the Baader Meinhof more seriously in Germany. I tried to play it out there because you did feel tormented, the stupid question, would you kill someone for what you believe in or not? If the answer is no, then you’re not a real Leftist.

Incredible state of mind to get into. I know a lot of Maoists did, particularly in Germany. Appalling, you had to prove your purity. Middle class kids enmeshed in this psycho-drama. It’s what happened to the counter-cultural extra-parliamentary Left as it disintegrated in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

You sound quite critical?

it was a fantasy, that killed a few people and blew away something which was peaceful and fine.

There was a group of intellectuals, they were Belgian actually, Guy Debord led them, they were called The Situationists who The Sex Pistols liked, oddly.

The Situationsts theory is that public life is arranged but no one lives in it really.

Society is a spectacle, it’s a system, a series of images that no one actually lives.

The term I’m searching for is printed circuit which is an old image, a pre chip image.  Society’s like a printed circuit. For it to work you can only go around in those circuits and so everyone swears to, say, the monarchy. But actually no one believes in it. Or everyone swears to the Church of England but no one actually believes in it. And everyone believes in democracy, you have to say that but no one lives it.

The way life itself is lived is completely different. Society of the spectacle is oppressive. It’s like a giant billboard under which we, we say `ah yes, there we are, life is perfect, everyone wears jeans, everyone has that size bust and waist, that colour skin, that beautiful skin.’ That’s the society of spectacle, the advertising. No one lives in the advertising world. We all live in a much scruffier, more complex world.

I thought that was a brilliant analysis. I’ve used it in plays, to disrupt the spectacle. How? go and shoot an American general in a base in Germany! That’s what.

That leap was made by the young terrorists of that time.

So how would you describe what’s happening now when things are actually carried through and you get 9/11; that’s disrupting the spectacle in no uncertain terms, isn’t it?

No, that’s serious. That’s an attack on the West by people who want basically the fall of Saudia Arabia. I’m not a politician so my insights are not necessarily better than anyone else. But it’s about Saudia Arabia.

Perhaps there’s an element of the society as spectacle. No one can actually say this is about Saudia Arabia. Until Saudia Arabia is sorted out, problems with Islam’s aggression towards the West will continue.

As well diisrupting the spectacle, you like to disrupt myths, don’t you?

Yes, I find it very, very interesting. The Tudors were fantastic at it [myth-making]. I have a little bit in Anne Boleyn, because they were bandits really. They’d taken over the country by force of arms. It was a bandit dynasty, they had no legitimate claim to the throne.

They had to erect a state that was believable so they used pomp and circumstance and glory and patronage. Everything looked different and fabulous and you had to be a part of it  or you were out. Or dead. Or tortured.

I’m very interested in that. But actually, underneath it, something else is going on.

And that was?

Power struggle. The establishment of a regime who founded us really. We’re their heirs.

In another interview about The Romans in Britain, you said we are their heirs because we were the ones who ran away. You were referring to the Celts.

Yes. We’re still basically Celts. Since I wrote the play, genetics have shown that the white population, born in this country are basically Celtic in their genes which has shot a lot of scholarship to bits.

Who’s actually proved this?

It’s been in the news, you can look it up on the Net

Okay, so we’re all Celts

A large majority of us, yes.

That leads us neatly into your beginnings; you were born in Hampshire?

I was born in Portsmouth. My parents weren’t living in Portsmouth. They were visiting. I came early and fortunately my aunt was a midwife, so she delivered me,

You were brought up in Hampshire?

No I was brought up in Sussex, Bognor Regis until I was 17/18

What did that feel like, living in Bognor Regis?

It was an idyll. My childhood was an idyll.

In what sense?

You were free; there was the seaside, the beach, you could cycle up into the Downs. It’s a very beautiful part of the world. My parents didn’t have much money. We lived in a council house.

Your father was a Methodist preacher?

No, he was a policeman until he was 50 and then he resigned. My father was a hopeless policeman. He hated it. He only joined the police because it was a time of unemployment in the ‘30s. He never got promoted, he was a constable, all his life. He was always religious and he decided to become a Methodist minister when he was 50. So he left the police and put the frock on. We then went madly around the country because Methodist ministers are moved around.

Do you think you inherited in the genes a certain dissidence from him? What do you put your own dissidence down to?

I don’t know really

Do you see yourself as a dissident?

I find it very hard to believe in certain things, to take certain things. I find it very hard listening to judges, to believe a word they say. I find it hard to see any point in Prince Charles. And certain tones when you hear Prime Ministers, whether I vote for them or not. They are certain tones in public that you know are false.

And Archbishops

And Archbishops. And Thought for the Day. That sanctimonious tone. It’s so damn English and you know it’s false. They’re all manipulating the spectacle; they’re creatures of the spectacle. And in a way, they know no one believes a word they say.

I just don’t feel a part of it somehow. Never have.

Would you call yourself an anarchist?

No. You always have to make it clear. Having certain political views of the world, doesn’t necessarily make you wise because you’re a playwright. The plays may be wise despite myself, if you see what I mean.

It happens with writers. The opinions of Dostoyevsky were horrendous; he was an appalling pamphleteer. Two dimensional, nationalistic, anti-semitic, awful. The lot. And yet when Dostoyevsky begins, this golden novel writing zooms off the page. Despite himself and despite what he believes in. You’ve always got to be terribly careful of that.

it’s true of many writers, isn’t it.

I think it is. And you can mess things up. I always think Shaw lost his mind, lost his way when he began to believe he was an oracle.

Just to go back. You get to Cambridge. What did you read at Cambridge?


And did you always want to write, where did that come from?

I was already writing plays at school. I wrote a play in the sixth form, A Life of Hitler which has never been done, completely unperformable (laughing).

Did you always see yourself as a playwright, then?

Well, as well as being a religious policeman, my father was also an amateur theatre producer. The local am-dram. I copied him and the way he bound the Samuel French book in brown paper. I wrote my own play and got my friends to do it, based on a comic strip in a comic called The Eagle. So, yes, it’s always been an obsession.

Maybe drama and theatre has always been there in you because preaching and going into the pulpit is the essence of theatre isn’t it?

No, it’s not, no. The essence of theatre is three people, at least two, probably three people in the pulpit, none of whom agree with each other. Then you’ve got theatre.

As in Anne Boleyn. When you’ve got Dean Andrews and Reynolds arguing about should there be altar-rails or not, that’s theatre. But Andrews preaching at you about how there should be altar-rails is not theatre, its demagogy.

Your play, Paul (2005), was a wonderful exploration of belief and faith under pressure or where belief comes under pressure. Do you feel these past few years that you’ve been exploring religion?

I’m a convinced atheist, I don’t think we survive. But because I came from a religious household I’ve always been fascinated by religion. The person who’s most influenced me really is Jean Paul Sartre. When I was very young, about 15, I found a slim volume stuffed out of place in a school library called Existentialism and Humanism. A 40 page essay that he wrote where he was asked to explain what is Existentialism. And he does it in the clearest, crystalline way. It blew me to smithereens. I thought, `this is what we live. This is what it’s like to wake up. This is what being aware is like.’ He describes it, he knows what it is.

And so I then became a fan of Sartre and have been off and on, well always on really.

Brilliant novels and also a great playwright.

He’s been pulled apart a bit in recent times, hasn’t he?

Yes, he was bonkers, he was off  the wall in many ways, his Maoism and that Greek lover of his. An extraordinary menagerie. He was a very Mandarin like man but I think a wonderful man who had a terrific sense of humour about himself.

He wrote something called War Diaries. He went off to the Front in the early years of the Second World War, in what was called the phoney war. This Mandarin upper class, brilliant

intellectual for the first time had to speak to some working class Frenchmen. The shock was enormous. Simone [de Beauvoir] gave him his notebooks to write in and send back home. He filled these notebooks, ironically for a War Diary, about how he began to try to relate to the lives of these guys and how they treated him. Unbelievable. And the humour in it.

Going back to your time as a young graduate, coming out of Cambridge, you went and joined the fringe group, The Brighton Combination, with Noel Greig, Jenny Harris and Ruth Marks.

No, after I left Cambridge, I became a stage manager for a year in weekly rep. I had the idea I must learn about the theatre.

Did it teach you much?

Yes it did, an enormous amount, the bottom of the profession, how people survived it. Whilst there I wrote a play which the Royal Court did for one performance. It was a one act play called It’s My Criminal and it was dreadful. I had no money, I was walking to the theatre from Notting Hill and sleeping on someone’s floor. But the Royal Court gave me a job backstage as a stagehand, working the flies because I had some theatre experience. And then Bill Gaskill [artistic director of the Royal Court] got me a job working in an office with an ex-press officer of his and they commissioned a play. And two years later they put it on. The play was Revenge in the Theatre Upstairs and that was it really. From then I was able to earn a living as a playwright.

That’s pretty wonderful really, when you think about it

It’s that extraordinary thing of the Royal Court, the play they put on wasn’t much of a success but for some reason they thought I could write. It was Bill Gaskill really. And look, I was from the sticks, I was a lower middle class – 24/5 years old.

They put their faith in you

Well, I was tongue tied. It was a very gay world  at that time, the Royal Court, a very sophisticated London theatre full of people who seemed to have minds like razor blades. I felt completely out of place. But they helped me. It sounds sentimental but I have never experienced theatre bitchiness or luvvieness. I’m always cross when the theatre is characterised as a load of luvvies. I’ve had nothing but kindness and help, right along the line, up to Nick Hytner [artistic director of the National Theatre].

Looking back at the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, how would you sum up those years? were they exciting?

Invention. Yes they were; we were inventing our theatre. We created something called the Fringe, a new way of writing, post-Osborne.

How would you define that?

Epic, political theatre. We called ourselves neo-Jacobeans

But they were very bloody and gory?

Yes, but they mixed up different styles of writing, verse and prose, reclaimed that kind of generous, wide theatre, not set in rooms, set in the outdoors, many-scened. That’s the drive we were on really. Me, David, Trevor Griffiths, Caryl Churchill, Snoo Wilson and lots of others, David Edgar, though he was rather younger. All different, Trevor was older than any of us. But we knew each other very well, we collaborated together, we were driving companies together, we were running them.

Was it a coincidence that you were all probably on the Left, socialists?

No, you naturally attract each other.

But also you wanted to change British society as well, you were anatomists, weren’t you, and satirists?

Oh yes. And we remained like that. That remained the drive, that theatre is entertainment but the aim is to change the world through fun.

It’s a hopeless undertaking. It’s an absolutely doomed and hopeless undertaking but we still believe in it. David still believes in it. The Power of Yes [by David Hare] is still to engage with changing the world through prickly entertainment. We haven’t changed in that way.

Do you think our generation failed?

Well yes but the Left has gone into crisis. The crisis finally came in 1989 and the ‘90s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the mid, late ‘80s I went to the Soviet Union twice and the first time I went, I thought, `my god, they’re going to reform. The Soviet Union’s going to reform and everything we’ve talked about is actually going to come out of this reformation.’ Three years later when I went back, the year before Gorbachev fell, it was imploding.

Horrible, horrible atmosphere. And all the people I met on the first visit were in despair. One was on the way to becoming Buddhist, a great Party member, actually ended up in India in a monastery. I mean, come on.

So yes, you can’t say we failed with our little Portable theatre and our few plays on at the National and the Royal Court. It wasn’t our failure. It was part of the general difficulty the Left has had or the History that happened.

[optional cut here: it’s just that the ‘60s generation are often lambasted for its failures

I don’t talk about it usually because, I don’t want to talk to my sons about the ‘60s. It’ was awful already in the ‘70s when I went to give a talk to university students and I had to remind myself they were ten in 1968; not another old fart going on about the ‘60s. I thought: `you’ve got to move on, you’ve got to re-invent yourself, you’ve got to somehow keep engaged with the world as it is.’

Some commentators as I say are now lambasting that period; you got it wrong.

But the Right always has to keep that down. They always have to keep that spirit down. They have to do it again and again. Even when they’re in power. In fact, when they’re in power they get more and more vituperative about the ideas that Tressell called the Commonwealth.]

Moving on, Paul and The Romans in Britain were both controversial. I’m bound to ask whether you enjoy creating a controversy with your work?

I don’t set out to do that. But as a writer you naturally gravitate to the hottest place. You can’t stop it. What writer can resist (laughing), the fault line is where the drama is. That fault line  25 years ago was Ireland, The Troubles; that was the fault line running right through British society.

What was the fault line with Paul, then?

Oh Islam. I wanted to write about fundamentalism, how you believe something so much that you go to your death for it. I can’t write a play about a young suicde bomber. How can I? I don’t know the culture. I find it rather offensive to the people who died and also to the people who killed themselves. I couldn’t do that. But with a history play you can go to the source – the source of our culture, Pauline, and the ambiguity of it. Because the man was a great moralist who founded something which was crucial to us really, the idea of love and personal relationship to the world. He called it God.

That’s how you use the history play. It’s not a manoeuvre. It’s an instinct to do it. And of course I knew it because I see so many echoes.

You obviously enjoyed writing with David Hare? Was it a conscious decision to go in different directions?

No, not really.

Are you still friends?

Oh yes, very much so. I mean, we’re not close friends. But we’re always in touch. And watch each other’s backs.

I’m very indebted to him, with Portable Theatre, Christie in Love that he directed. He also directed Weapons of Happiness, my first play at the National and we did those two plays together, Brassneck and Pravda.

We wanted to do a third, a play about Richard Nixon because we were both fascinated by him. Then we realised that actually it was Lambert Le Roux who fixated us. Nixon was like Lambert Le Roux who fell.

Nixon was a fascinating character. He was a horrible politician. I mean he ruined people’s lives, unscrupulous. He was a congenital liar. He couldn’t tell the truth about anything. An interviewer would ask him, when were you born and he’d name the wrong year instinctively; there was something in him that couldn’t, wouldn’t tell people the truth about himself and no one really knows what that is.

I remember there was a book by an American psychologist called Fawn M Brodie, a very good biography of Nixon and her theory was that his younger brother who died in a playground or schoolyard, it was Nixon who threw the stone. In other words, he killed his young brother and so he was suffering from a Cain-like secret all his life which is an extraordinary (emphasis) idea. if you believe in psycho babble explanations of life it’s quite an interesting one. Nixon was very nearly a great man in many ways. He was very socially aware. He had the nearest of early green policies, stuff that later Presidents wrecked. He was almost a Social Democrat in some of his policies and although it was an eye to the main chance, realpolitik, the attempt to engage with China was incredibly (stress) important. And then he also bombed Cambodia. And then did the stupid thing with Watergate, an election he was going to win by miles anyway.

Something just tipped over.

When Richard [Eyre] was running the National Theatre, there was a lot of discussion about another play. He tried to encourage us to write one about the BBC. We had several lunches with people whose careers have been ruined by the BBC (laughing). And then we thought, god, three hours in the Olivier Theatre with John Birt in the middle of the stage. Lambert Le Roux. The will to write, let alone …the will to live. So it came to nothing. And then the National sent the bill (exploding with laughter) for the lunches we’d had from the BBC dissidents (laughing uncontrollably). We paid them and then we’ve gone off to do our own things since then.


Finally, if we were to look at your career graph, it doesn’t seem to me to fall into any particular pattern. There was the early fringe work, you did have a time with the RSC; you did Sore Throats (1978) and Thirteenth Night (1981) but you didn’t necessarily become associated with the RSC?

Well, they revived The Churchill Play twice (1974 originally, Nottingham Playhouse; RSC 1974, 1988), they revived it at Stratford and then at the Barbican and I wrote two plays for them, and they were very good when The Romans in Britain controversy began.

Peter Hall said, `while this is on never, never dine out on it. Get on with work’. So I wrote Thirteenth Night which the RSC put on around that time.

I remember the first preview happened the night before [Michael] Bogdanov [the director of The Romans in Britain who was being prosecuted for `obscenity’ by Mary Whitehouse] was appearing in the magistrates court. I remember sitting there with the press pressing against the window and Michael turning and saying, `how’s your preview?’. Surreal experience. (laughing again).

What was it about, Thirteenth Night?

It was a re-write of Macbeth no less, about a Labour Party Prime Minister in an imaginary Britain who turns into Stalin (exploding with laughter again).

And then you joined Foco Novo [theatre company] and did Sleeping Policeman (1983) and Bloody Poetry (1984), wonderful play.

Yes, it gets done a lot. But it’s odd, the ‘80s, I suppose because you’d got experience by then; you knew you were in opposition. You knew you had to hang on and make the subsidised theatre work as hard as you could because it would be under threat. And indeed Foco Novo was axed along with other left-wing groups in ‘87. [John] McGrath’s 7:84 was axed in that same round.

Yes, it was known as the Night of Long Knives, wasn’t it?

Yea, and oddly, the ‘80s were an extremely rich and fertile time. They were for David, too. For a lot of us.  Caryl Churchill did work which put the finger on the age, really. That went on through the ‘80s really. And then the ‘90s. To me the divide is the ‘90s really.

It kicked off well enough but then I had difficulty because I wrote two plays I couldn’t get on and I fell to endless writing and rewriting, a play called One Once which was commissioned by Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

It went through five different radically different versions. People just threw up their hands in despair when they read it. Mark Rylance asked me to do a version here. I did an entirely new one. Mark said, `what on earth is this?’

It happens with plays. I’ve got another in my bag which is going through the same process, where you write a play that is incoherent. You can’t make sense of it. And you don’t know why you are doing this. One Once took months and months and months, as the Halifax was emptying and emptying. It went on and on and on. And got nowhere really.

I had another play called Doctor Love that Peter [Hall] was going to do. He was going to do it with Dominic Dromgoole directing it at the Old Vic. Then his company went bankrupt. I’d waited a year for him to do it. Then the play was sort of, its age was over. So it was a difficult time, the ‘90s. Sort of out of fashion.

Were you relieved when somebody came to you about Spooks. Who came to you?

Jane Featherstone. I’d written a play for RADA which was directed by the man who ran Foco Novo, Roland Rees. Jane saw it or heard about it and called or got a script off my agent. There was a scene with an MI5 man in it and she said would I write an episode for this series that they were planning; it hadn’t been green lit. So I wrote that and ended up writing half the first series (laughing). It was just terrific (stress).

Was it a learning curve for you?

Yes, and I loved it. What I loved was that they were all young; they didn’t know who you were; they had no interest in your area of work. They didn’t care if you were some old Leftie. They didn’t care. They were a terrifc company. Still are.

What was the company?

Kudos. Then the noughties began. It does feel very much like several patches.

But the one thing about One Once which I must finish. When my elder son (I’ve got two sons) read Paul, he said you’ve written One Once which was about a man cut in half, based on a Calvino short story. He said `Paul’s that figure. You’ve done, that’s it.’ And I said, `my god, that’s right.’ Isn’t that strange?

And I think that happens. I’ve got another play that has been going on and on and on with different versions. And I know in the end something like that will happen.

You talk in terms of there being  some process going on inside that even the writer knows not of.

That’s true.

You’re some kind of conduit…

Its’ true, it’s why they used to believe in the muse. Or why you say `I couldn’t get that scene out’. You say `out of what? it doesn’t exist’. Or you say `I messed that scene’. Well it is just a mess. There’s nothing. It’s as if there is some platonic…as if the play already exists. And somehow you’ve got to transcribe it in a way that’s not too distorted.

Every writer has this, I think. And at times you have a sense, when it’s really going, you almost don’t remember writing the scene or words. It’s weird stuff. It’s not worth thinking about too much because you could get…it’s why some writers turn horribly mystic.

It’s like touching the electric fence and it’s too dangerous to do that…

Yea, it’s built in the nervous system. You go to bed at night not knowing how to finish the scene and you wake up and you finish it. You’ve been writing it in your sleep. And that happens, again and again.

Do you think you’ve been fortunate, coming up for your half century?

Yes I had no idea…

Are we in dangerous times now, in terms of theatre…?

They’re full, they’re packed, people love them. There’s a whole new generation of writers coming through.

But we’re going to be living through austerity times, cuts are coming…

People will re-invent in some way. I mean there wasn’t a theatre that would put any of our work on so we invented the Fringe. They will invent. Good artists are always opportunists. I’m optimistic because the audiences are there and the younger writers have their younger audiences.

Do you notice in yourself any slowing up?

No, I don’t notice any slowing up. I mean I’ve got osteoarthritis and one knee is metal. The other is to be metalled as well. But it’s physical.

I may be speeding towards disorderly writing in extreme old age. My mother is 99! Who would put a play on by a 99 year old playwright (laughing)? I mean it would be great to think what it would be like. You’d have to write beyond Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. The 85 year old writer dies in the arms of a 25 year old nurse, in an avalanche. I suppose I’ve got plays like that to come.

First published on The Arts Desk website, 2010