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Brief Encounter with... Playwright Howard Brenton

As his new Strindberg adaptation Dances of Death premieres at the Gate, Howard Brenton reveals his admiration for the Swedish dramatist and his desire to get to grips with the current political climate

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Howard Brenton
© Dan Wooller
How long have you been keen to adapt this play?
I've always been very interested in Strindberg, and Dance of Death is one of the really great Strindberg plays. I actually wrote a Strindbergian drama about 25 years ago, called Sore Throats.

How do you characterise ‘Strindbergian'?
Psychological, unstable, metaphysical undertones. He wasn't interested in social matters much but had an exploratory way of writing, like he's writing a human laboratory to see how extreme human behaviour and feeling can get. He was wonderfully casual about plot – in some ways I think he was rather irritated by it. But his modernity is extraordinary, rather like Beckett.

Could you expand on the plot of Dances of Death?
The original title was The Vampire, and it's about someone who's sucked the life out of their partner. It's a marital battle between two equals, and they're locked into their own personal hell. There were lots of islands off the coast of Sweden that acted as quarantine stations for diseases such as cholera. It's set on one of these islands, which is a metaphor for what's happening in this extraordinary marriage.

It's usually staged as The Dance of Death - why is your adaptation plural?
Strindberg wrote a second part, commissioned by a German theatre, to complete the story. This second play is rarely performed but it is very interesting; it's in a different style to part one and provides a kind of resolution to the events in the first play. It was [director] Tom Littler's idea to cut the two parts down into one evening to make a coherent arc of the drama.

How big a challenge was that?
It was quite challenging but it's wonderful doing adaptations because it's a real workout for you as a writer. You learn how a master does it, by going down into their engine room. I felt the same thing when I did a Brecht adaptation. You enter into a strange sort of conversation with the playwright you're adapting.

And you worked from a literal translation?
Yes. Tom and I commissioned a literal translation and I didn't look at any other versions, so I didn't pick up echoes from other writers. I asked a scholar called Agnes Broome to write down literally what was there, not to worry about rhythms and so on. So I was looking at a kind of fractured x-ray of the play, and you have to somehow get it back to full bodied life.

Michael Pennington & Tom Littler in rehearsals
You have a great cast, led by Linda Marlowe and Michael Pennington
Yes - Michael was always on board from the beginning, when we were trying to find a venue for the project, and Linda was in my Strindbergian effort Sore Throats many years ago. So it's a very happy company.

And the Gate is another intimate venue, following your recent work at Hampstead
Indeed. We wanted to find a studio space for it and the Gate is a perfect fit, as it happens to be almost the exact dimensions of the theatre that Strindberg premiered the play in. But yes, I have worked in smaller spaces recently – with 55 Days I had to pour an epic into a matchbox.

What sparked your interest in historical dramas?
I suddenly realised a few years ago that I was writing plays about contemporary revolutionary heroes who attempt to change the world, but are often unsuccessful. So I began a sequence, starting with Saint Paul and going on to Abelard & Heloise, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Harold Macmillan, to examine people who really did change the world. I had to include Macmillan to have someone from the right!

What's your take on the current political climate?
I can't read the age we're living in at the moment. We all knew what was happening in the ‘80s, it was a blowback against the left and the social democratic policies of the previous 30 years. But I can't tell whether the crisis is over or whether we're on the verge of the real crisis, and this is all a prelude to a big blow-up. I can't read how serious the crisis is, nor can I quite grasp its nature.

Does that trouble you?
Yes, it does. It's like the lights are going out and you don't know why.

What are you reflections on #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at Hampstead?
I came to admire Ai as an artist very highly. Conceptual artists in the west say ‘me me me', whereas he reaches out to say ‘us us us'. He's not a political thinker, he just asks one question, which is ‘why can't I do whatever I want?' I admire that, and I think his sense of responsibility is huge.

I bet you never thought a few years ago you'd write a play with a hashtag in the title that would be broadcast on computers around the world
Yes, it was extraordinary. The stream was Edward Hall's idea and Ai Weiwei managed to watch it, he found a way to get round the blocks. He then tweeted about it and thousands watched it in China. I liked the idea that you could plug into something that was happening live at that very moment, from anywhere in the world.

So what's next?
I want to write a series of plays about our time, survival pieces attempting to deal with the great uncertainty. More immediately I've got a play at the National Theatre Shed as part of their Connections project, a tremendous production called The Guffin which is performed by a group of young people from Paisley. I loved doing it because it began to get me back into dealing with our time again.

And you're rumoured to be writing a First World War play for the Globe?
Yes, I'm writing a history play for the Globe but it will be somewhat different from the others.

Dances of Death runs at the Gate Theatre until 6 July 2013. The Guffin is performed in the NT Shed on 5 July