Howard Brenton made his name as one of a group of left-wing playwrights including David Hare, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Trevor Griffiths writing politically charged drama in the early seventies. Premiered at the Royal Court in 1973, Magnificence was arguably Brenton’s first significant play, and though it’s a strange, uneven work it’s difficult to believe that this splendid production by Fat Git Theatre is the first professional revival in London since then. It may be very much a product of a different social era, but its radical themes still reverberate today.
The play begins with young idealistic squatters occupying a derelict house to make a public statement about the problem of homelessness. Spraying graffiti slogans and displaying a banner proclaiming ‘We are the writing on your wall’, they argue about how they can make more of an impact. But the relatively good-humoured mood turns much darker after a forceful eviction leads to tragedy and inflames their leader to attempt more violent reprisals against what he regards as an oppressive establishment.
Magnificence was written when the hard left were deeply split about what direction to take: most favoured continuing with demonstration and protests, but a small minority wanted more extreme direct action, even terrorism. In Italy the Red Brigades and in Germany the Red Army Faction waged a long campaign of political violence, but the closest Britain came was a short-lived, ineffective outfit called the Angry Brigade (subject of a recent eponymous play by James Graham), whose few members were convicted the year before Magnificence was first staged and who may well have partly inspired Brenton to write it.
The play does not refer directly to any actual events, though it reflects the spirit of the time. Right now the left of British politics is riven with conflict as socialist Corbynistas compete bitterly with middle-ground social democrats for control of the Labour Party, but Magnificence focuses on those outside mainstream politics who are disaffected with the parliamentary hierarchy ‒ and that resonates strongly with the general cynicism about MPs today. And of course the lack of affordable housing amidst ruthless property development is also a big contemporary issue.
But Magnificence is no dry rhetorical discussion – it’s a really lively piece of theatre with moments of surprisingly absurd, satirical humour. There’s a bizarre scene between a brutal but paranoid bailiff and a well-meaning, philosophical Copper outside the squat. And after the interval we seem to be in a different play, featuring Jacobean-style theatrical asides, as an elderly One Nation Tory summons a current right-wing minister (and former lover?) to his Cambridge college to try to destabilise him before he dies. Not to mention a semi-coherent tramp emerging from a cardboard box and a drug-induced hallucination of comrade Lenin.
Phil Lindley’s ramshackle design convincingly re-creates the chaotic squalor of a squat (with the rhododendrons on the peeling wallpaper cleverly used in a later garden scene), while Joe Price’s imaginative lighting is highly effective in evoking the watery reflection of a punt on the Cam and a blood-red explosive finale. Director Josh Roche elicits excellent performances from his cast, including Joel Gillman’s angrily disturbed Jed, Will Bliss’s acid-head joker Will, Hayward B. Morse’s deliciously bitchy Babs and Tim Faulkner’s smooth operator Alice.
Magnificence is Brenton’s third show in London this year following on from his new play Lawrence After Arabia at the Hampstead Theatre and a revival of his first professional play John Christie in Love at the King’s Head. After a fallow period in the theatre he has enjoyed a remarkable late renaissance in the last ten years with a string of mainly historical biographical plays, but the success of Magnificence suggests it could well be worth revisiting another of his neglected early works, in particular The Churchill Play or Epsom Downs.
Magnificence is on at the Finborough Theatre until 19th November 2016. Click here for more details.