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“I think amateur theatre is a terrific thing,” says actor/playwright David Haig, 63, whose play My Boy Jack about Kipling and his son who died at the Battle of Loos in 1915, is one of the most popular non-musicals chosen for performance by community companies. “The standard is usually very high and the levels of commitment are extraordinary. I love it.”
And David has seen a great deal of amateur theatre including many productions of My Boy Jack. “I get lots of invitations along with letters and emails about the show,” says David. “But of course I can’t get to them all and may not get to many more having seen twenty-five or so.” He adds: “I feel rewarded and moved that so many people want to perform my play and I’m also delighted that amateur work reaches people who probably wouldn’t normally see live theatre.”
His latest play, Pressure, looks set to enjoy the same popularity. It began life in Edinburgh, was revived at Park Theatre in London last year and then had a West End run at Ambassadors Theatre. Most critics, including this one, loved it. Pressure tells the story of James Stagg, a Scottish meteorologist whose contentious forecast, after much tension, enabled the D-Day landings to go ahead successfully. David played Stagg just as he played Kipling in the original TV version of My Boy Jack.
The performing rights for Pressure (licensed through Nick Hern Books) have recently been made available. “And we already have a double figure number of companies expressing interest in doing it,” says David, happily. “I was very keen that it should go ahead this year to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings.” He and colleagues are working hard at developing a way of giving interested companies a useable way of projecting the five big weather forecast charts, which are a crucial part of the piece. David refers to them as another character in the play.
So how did it all begin? “I grew up in various places because my father was in the army but, by the time I was eleven, we’d settled in Hampshire and I was sent to Rugby where, of course, I did lots of drama before I was expelled for a minor misdemeanour.”
He continues: “Old-fashioned public schools like Rugby have long-recognised the importance of drama and theatre – as a hobby. So there was a house play in each of the twelve houses every term, the school play and lots more. Given that level of commitment and facilities it’s hardly surprising that schools such as Eton and Harrow produce a steady stream of people who say they don’t want to be solicitors or bankers, thank you. Instead they become successful actors. It isn’t fair but as things are it’s inevitable.”
After school David trained as an actor at LAMDA in the mid-1970s and has been successfully in work most of the time ever since. He won an Olivier for Best Actor in a new play for his performance as Ralph Clark in the original production of Our Country’s Good at Royal Court and was nominated both for his Mr Banks for the 2005 production of Mary Poppins at Prince Edward Theatre and for his Chris Headlingley in Michael Frayn’s Donkey’s Years at Comedy Theatre in 2006.
And I have fond memories of his gloriously manic Pinchwife in The Country Wife At Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2007. Then there was his Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister in 2011-12 not to mention masses of film and television including, more recently, Bill Pargrave in Killing Eve. When I spoke to David he was about to start rehearsals for a new TV series, Cobra.
What, given his long and impressive CV is he proudest of? “The Madness of George III,” he replies, without a second’s hesitation. “It explores integrity within insanity and as soon as I read the script I knew I could do it. Those edgy neuroses that George has are not far below the surface of my own personality. Sometimes you get a part which just fits and you can feel it very strongly because you’re way past your usual point even at the first read-through.” He chuckles. “I doubt that I could do it physically now, though.” The Madness of George III played at the Apollo in London and toured extensively in 2011/12 and although David doesn’t mention it, his performance won him …yet another Olivier nomination.
It must be hard to juggle what has developed into a two-strand career? “Not really because the acting and writing are polar opposites so they complement each other. Acting is showing off in public and writing is an introverted solitary activity. I like the balance and contrast,” he explains adding, thoughtfully, that if he now had to give up one of these activities he’d now ditch the acting and focus on writing.
David fell into writing serendipitously. “I’d been in a production of Tom and Viv in the early nineties. I’d developed an interest in Kipling and I knew there was a play there. I suggested it to several people but no-one would touch it because of Kipling’s loathed overt imperialism.” Then several friends suggested that since David, by chance, looks a lot like Kipling, he should write it himself. “So it was all a bit self-interested because I was creating a part for myself as I wrote,” he says explaining that he became more and more fascinated by Kipling as he researched and worked on the play because he is so much like David’s father who went on, after the army, to run the Hayward Gallery. “Like Kipling, my father was a strange blend of military values and the arts,” recalls David. “So it all seemed very familiar.”
The family loss theme in My Boy Jack is very eloquent but David thinks the play’s appeal is both deeper and more generic than that. “It’s a stance parents often take. They argue a case in theory – in Kipling’s case that his son should join up – but the emotional reality doesn’t hit until the repercussions arrive and there’s suffering. Dreadful suffering in Kipling’s case because his son was dead. Then attitudes change.”
David tells me he can write anywhere – in longhand in a Pukka notebook. Later he types the work onto a computer or iPad. “I used to be able to bury myself anywhere in the house,” says David who has lived in Brockley for several decades with his wife Julia with whom he has five children aged between 33 and 19. On the day I speak to him he has to fit me in around speaking to some decorators. It’s appealingly domestic.
“When I had small children around me I learned to be flexible,” he says. “I work in coffee shops a lot too. I wrote most of Pressure in a café in a very hot Budapest when I was filming Strike Back there, for example.”
Julia, who is casually called to the phone to supply some supplementary information during my conversation with David, is a former actor. Retrained, she now works as psycho-dynamic counsellor at a self-referring centre in Bromley. Of their five children, numbers one and three, as their father cheerfully refers to them (their names are actually Alice and Fred), are actors. “Of course I didn’t try to put them off,” he says when I quiz him about it. “What on earth would be the point? And I wouldn’t want to, anyway.”
David, who also loves golf and Greenwich Park, refers to himself several times in our conversation as an obsessive workaholic. He has mentioned this in earlier interviews too. “I’m still very driven. I can’t cope with the absence of absorption and my head very soon begins to fidget. I was up early this morning, for example, learning lines. I’m very much a morning person. I tend to get maudlin at night.”
Line-learning ability, I suggest, since he has mentioned it, is often the thing which most impresses people outside the industry. Is it getting more difficult now that he’s – ahem – in his 60s? “Yes, definitely,” he says expressing admiration for actors who do quite long one-person shows. “I have to work very hard at it. And I do it schoolboy style; constant repetition and covering the page until I’m really on top of it.” No quick fixes or hot tips here, then.
So what has this engaging, busy man got in the pipeline? “Nick Hytner has commissioned a new play from me for Bridge Theatre,” he says declining to tell me what it’s about. “I think it’s a rather good idea so I’d better keep it under wraps for the moment but all will be clear soon.” He adds: “They seem to like the first draft so things are going well and I’m anticipating that it will probably happen in 2020.”
And a film of Pressure is on the cards. “It won’t be the same cast, though,” David says. “They’ll want someone half my age to play Stagg – one of these young bucks, I expect.”
David Haig is excellent value in every sense. Fine plays, glitteringly good stage and screen performance and engaging to talk to in real life. What more could you ask for?
Pressure by David Haig is now available for amateur performance, released in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.
Contact Nick Hern Books for more information and to request your license: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 8749 4953. The weather charts from the original professional run are also available for use alongside any amateur production, for an additional fee.