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How to stage a comeback

HOT IRONS:Diaries, Essays, Journalism by Howard Brenton Nick Hern Books £15.99
ONCE UPON a time, way back in 1969, Howard Brenton gave me a good evening in the theatre: Christie in Love, a spicy little number about a copper, a living corpse and a life-size doll. Here was a new writer with a distinctive voice and, as it turned out, an uncanny prescience of the Dennis Nilsen case. A talent to watch.

The rest, with a vengeance, is history. Brenton became a leading member of the Hare-Baker-Edgar-Griffiths nexus who spent the '70s and early '80s shouting, from state-subsidised stages, about the rottenness of the state. And that original, larky voice - not in the Orton class, but definitely akin to it - got drowned out in a generalised, moralistic rant, which was in turn drowned out by the outrage it generated.

Norman St John Stevas, as Minister for the Arts, apologised to the Commons for letting A Short, Sharp Shock occupy a GLC theatre; needless to say, he hadn't seen the play. Mary Whitehouse, who hadn't seen The Romans in Britain, nevertheless saw fit to sue its director for "procuring an act of gross indecency". Those of us who did see that play found it hard to disentangle the voice of the playwright from the rabid blur surrounding it.

In those heady days, Brenton's work was bold, prolific and undeniably adventurous. He forged his plays like a blacksmith, and sent them armour- plated into battle. But the clash of weapons which produced fireworks like Pravda (with David Hare) and Moscow Gold (with Tariq Ali) was not always suited to the communication of ideas: Bloody Poetry, through which Brenton sought to portray Shelley and his circle, collapsed in a clatter of clichs. As a serious playwright, Brenton seemed to have written himself out.

So I didn't bother to see his Iron-Curtain rumination Berlin Bertie, and now that I've read it, I'm sorry. In this 1992 play he lets his ideas take wing, and the result is sweetly haunting. His imagery seems purged of the anal sadism which smudges the works of his ranting period. It seems like daybreak after a night of the soul.

And so in fact it proves. In the concluding essay of Hot Irons Brenton chronicles Berlin Bertie's rehearsal-room birth, and we find this striking statement: "I want SONG not moralising in my new plays. I'm sick of the political epic's pseudo-moralising tone ... I've done too much of it." He excoriates the Royal Court "loonies" who want to impose a pettifogging piece of "anti-racist" censorship on his script. He has moved on; his progeny have not.

This catch-all compendium volume has some damp squibs, but it also has moments of brilliance, and it's often gracefully written. Who is our century's greatest playwright? "Brecht, alas." Brenton then proceeds to castigate his hero's "fatal stage blindness". Rich, perhaps, coming from a writer often deaf to the nuances of words, but Brenton is so humbly self-critical that you forgive him. And he's spot-on about the Shakespeare industry: "With their codes lost, their political radio-activity decayed away, the plays ... are all things to anyone, to the point of meaninglessness."

Brenton own radioactivity has emphatically not decayed: he's the same old Leftie romantic. Left-wing Paris, which he goes in search of for a magazine article, lets him down woefully; Meyerhold's duty shrine in Moscow quickens his radical pulse. Endearingly, he still sees it as his job to rally the socialist faithful. "Thirteenth Night" is addressed "to the troops. I make no apology for - just once - writing a play that dramatises an internal row, hanging up the Left's bloodstained linen in public." While the Romans in Britain court case was pending, he tramped the provinces giving solo readings of the play. He has that doggedness still.

The most arresting chapters of this book chronicle his visit to newly- liberated Russia: the "crazed inertia" he finds in Moscow, and the stoicism with which the inhabitants of Kiev put up with environmental radioactivity, make a sobering read.

Hanging out among crocs and rednecks in Queensland, Brenton finds himself noting down every detail, no matter how apparently pointless. He's no Alan Bennett: he doesn't have that knack of giving everything he touches his personal stamp. But he's got curiosity, sympathy and a journalistic eye. And, cut off from the claustrophobia of the London stage, he sounds blissfully happy.