Brimstone and Treacle


Michael Kitchen appears as Martin in the disturbing Brimstone and Treacle, one of the BBCs Play For Today series. Written by Dennis Potter.


Although filmed in 1976 for the Play For Today series, it was not transmitted until August 25, 1987.

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Brimstone and Treacle

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Reviews & Interviews

Staging Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle for a modern audience
The Guardian; Theatre; May 1, 2012; Mark Lawson

Brimstone and Treacle, Dennis Potter's play featuring the rape of a disabled woman, caused a storm in the 1970s. Could a new revival prove even more shocking?

Few things date more quickly than outrage. Works once viewed as unperformably perverse - Stravinsky and Nijinsky's The Rite of Spring, Strindberg's Miss Julie - are now a good night out for the bourgeoisie. When the young theatre director Amelia Sears, hunting for her next production, came across a copy of a play called Brimstone and Treacle by Dennis Potter, she had, she admits, "no idea of the controversy there was around it. I'd done a production of Potter's Blue Remembered Hills and I found this in a library and thought: why hasn't it been done?"

The revival Sears is now directing at the Arcola theatre in London will be a test of whether a text that provoked a fat file of newspaper headlines in the 1970s and 80s - including Satan Rape Play Banned by BBC - remains contentious; it is another important stage in the curent re-examination of Potter's work. Television dramatists, in the medium's early years, made a devil's deal: their work would reach a size of audience unimaginable to a theatre playwright but it would, in all probability, be seen only once and live on only in the memories of those who had been impressed. Now, DVDs and rerun channels are giving TV plays an afterlife; The Singing Detective has just had an acclaimed repeat on BBC4.

Brimstone and Treacle was commissioned by the BBC in 1974, but production was delayed for two years because of executive tremors. The play is a savage parable about religion, in which a young man called Martin charms his way into the house of a conservative suburban couple, Mr and Mrs Bates, who care for a daughter left speechless and paralysed by a hit-and-run accident. It is possible that Martin may be the devil incarnate; in the television version, he removes his shoes to reveal claw-like feet. In the scene that made the script notorious, he rapes the disabled young woman, an act that restores her to health and speech.

As elsewhere in his work, Potter seems to have been exploring the relationship between good and evil - in this case, a positive outcome arising from a negative act. In one of several articles he wrote during the controversy, the writer explained that "the sort of 'religious drama'" he wanted to write was "based on the feeling that religion is not the bandage but the wound ... I suspect that, if the neat, polite and unctuous young man had been 'an angel', the play would not have met so much trouble."

Recorded in 1976, the play was referred to the then BBC director of television programmes, Alasdair Milne. In his memoirs, Milne records that a screening made him "almost physically sick". While stressing the brilliance of the writing and acting, Milne ruled that the drama would be found "repugnant" by much of the audience and so could not be shown.

But in culture, the banned rapidly becomes contraband, and attempts are made to smuggle it out. Potter adapted his censored text for the Sheffield Crucible theatre in 1977. David Leland, who directed it, retains vivid memories of the playwright (who had stayed away from rehearsals) coming to see the production. "He sat beside me and it was visibly an incredibly uncomfortable experience for him. He was literally wringing his hands. I think he was shaken by the impact of seeing the play at such close range, in the way I had staged it." He thinks Potter had expected the play to be performed at a safe distance, behind a curtain or arch, and was disturbed to find the stage almost in the middle of the audience. But, though it shocked the author, this first stage version caused no wider disturbance. "Funnily enough," says Leland, "1977 was also the year that international snooker was played at the Crucible for the first time. And I remember there being far more concern among the theatre governors about the snooker than about us putting on Brimstone and Treacle."

Even so, a moment such as the rape scene is always potentially more shocking in the theatre than on TV, especially in a small studio space such as the Arcola, where the audience is almost physically in the living room. And while a film director can control the point of view through camera angles and cuts, theatre-goers have much more choice in how they watch graphic action and the actors' bodies. "That is an issue," Sears says, "especially in a very confined space. But rape is seen so often in cinema and television that it seems ironic to put so much emphasis on this one scene." Potter's script was published to coincide with the Sheffield premiere, and predicted a transfer to London's West End in 1978; this never happened, though the play did have a fringe production. A cinema version, directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Sting as Martin, was released in 1982, making little impact on the box office (though more on the charts, through Sting's recording of the ballad Spread a Little Happiness, played under the closing credits). Then, in 1987, Michael Grade (who had commissioned The Singing Detective for BBC1) pulled Brimstone and Treacle from the naughty shelf and screened it.

Sears and Rupert Friend, who plays Martin at the Arcola, have avoided watching both the TV and cinema versions ahead of their production. "I might look at them afterwards," says Sears, "but I very much wanted to approach it as a theatrical piece." Wasn't Friend intrigued to see what Sting had done with the role? "With the greatest respect, really not. It's better not to know."

The most intriguing aspect of this revival is that the play may be more contentious now than it was 35 years ago. Its television ban was prompted by the fear that the plot might offend Christians; in 2012, the propriety of depicting a sexual assault on a quadriplegic woman is the more likely source of protest. "I've had to think about this, from a woman's point of view," says Sears. "What, morally, is this suggesting? A woman gets raped and she is apparently healed. So that has been a challenge." Potter was often accused of misogyny and even sexual perversion in his work. Sears points out that contemporary audiences may be more understanding because of the revelation, in Humphrey Carpenter's 1998 biography, that Potter was sexually abused by an uncle. Does the writer's status as a victim of sexual abuse explain or excuse the rape scene? "I don't think it excuses it," says Sears. "But it does make you think about why he wrote the scene and what he was saying: that he was not making a simple equation that rape equals healing."

Friend has come to the conclusion that Martin's confusions are also partly the result of sexual abuse. And, while the original objection to the play was that the girl's recovery is presented as a warped miracle, director and cast have explored with neurologists the possibility that the girl's silence and paralysis were caused by trauma rather than brain damage, and so were potentially reversible by a further shock. Experts on satanism have also come into the rehearsal room to help Friend explore whether Martin is or isn't the devil; in the stage version, there is no giveaway glimpse of his feet. "I don't want to give too much away," Friend says, "because I think Potter intended the ambiguity. But we have explored in great depth the psychological reasons why someone might think they were the devil."

Unaware of the play before he was offered the role, Friend says he was not particularly shocked by the content: "It reminded me of [Pedro] Almodovar's film Talk to Her, in which a man rapes a comatose woman." He argues that it is important the play not be reduced to a single, brief, controversial scene. "When I'm doing it, I mustn't think about it as That Scene. I would find it very debilitating to put neon quotation marks around that moment. The play has to be a whole journey. It's clear that some of the company find the idea of the scene uncomfortable, but I just can't." (Leland, the play's first director, would agree. "Regardless of its reputation, I actually see it, in a very black and bizarre way, as a very funny play. I think it's about the gullibility of parents - a very rich and common theme.")

Some of Sears' audience will no doubt be drawn by the persistent smoke trail of outrage, but she would prefer theatre-goers not to come - or leave - for that reason. "I don't worry about people walking out," she says, "because, really, we see worse things than this every day. I wanted to do the play because Potter has a thrilling and original voice. I don't think there will be anything else like this around in theatre."