Certified Success: David Haig
Published in The Stage, 11.07.2013
Nobody implodes like David Haig. While other actors can cry on demand, Haig short-circuits at will. He’ll start calm and collected, the picture of temperate authority, then – one, two, three – bang. Breakdown. Fuse blown. Hair sticking out on end. Shouting himself hoarse.
Haig is blessed with a beautiful contradiction – outward poise, internal panic. One moment, he’s all upstanding propriety; the next, apocalyptic shambles – often over some minor detail or other. It’s a formula he’s deployed time and again – in Yes, Prime Minister, Donkeys’ Years and Loot on stage – and has helped to make him one of the greatest farceurs around.
This summer, however, the perfect fool is playing King Lear. Haig is back at the Theatre Royal, Bath after his Olivier-nominated performance in The Madness of George III, for a production directed by Lucy Bailey.
“I’ve always said that you should approach farce as if you’re playing King Lear,” he reveals. “If you think about farce, it’s the same fall from grace, from power and status, to a scrabbling mess on the floor. It doesn’t work unless you approach it with a passionate belief, an intensity of purpose, and so, interpretatively, there’s no difference between comedy and tragedy. Now we get the chance to test that.
“I veer towards madness,” he continues. “The serious face of that is George III a couple of years ago, and now Lear. So I have to assume that the potential for madness is in me too, behind my smiley, avuncular self.”
That’s a pretty good description. He cuts a relaxed, affable figure – not laconic, but certainly more Californian than you’d expect. It’s a hot day. Haig is reclining in the window of a south London coffee shop, in a loose shirt and linen trousers – a world away from the buttoned-up authoritarians he plays. He seems younger than his 58 years.
Even so, he is well short of Lear’s four-score-and-upwards. “Scofield was fortysomething,” he reminds me. “Brian Cox, too.” Jonathan Pryce and Simon Russell Beale – his peer-Lears, if you like – are both sub-60 as well. “This man is screaming at the elements out on the heath. He’s got to be consumed by fury and rejection. That requires a huge input. If you play it at 80, you’re going to struggle.”
Haig thinks he’s got a grip on that passion. “I’m a father of five and, as well as being about a man of status and power, it’s also about a father and his children – the profound hurt of rejection by your own blood. I can completely understand how that triggers madness. Fortunately, none of my children have rejected me. Yet.”
That’s how he works – not through research, but empathy. “You have to step into that person’s shoes, speak their language through elements of your own personality.”
Still, you build up to Lear. It takes altitude training. Haig last performed Shakespeare in 1991, playing Angelo in Trevor Nunn’s Measure for Measure at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s excitedly nervous, but relishing a return to verse: “I’m looking forward to finding what’s contemporary in the rhythm.”
He saw the National Theatre’s production of Othello recently. “Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester do that superbly. They land on a word that’s 21st-century, while adhering to the verse, and the audience leaps at it. If you just drive through to those contemporary resonances, the audience can digest it more readily.”
That’s crucial for Haig. The majority of his recent stage work has a commercial life, and he enjoys the dint of populism involved. “To run well in the West End, to bring in big crowds, that’s fulfilling. I also like long runs and the challenge of keeping things fresh night after night.” Mind you, with five children to feed, the money helps: “Television is less and less well paid, but hit a lucky commercial show and it’s well-remunerated.”
It’s also allowed him huge variety. He’s played musicals, restoration comedies, classics and new writing – Art, Loot and Journey’s End – in the West End alone. Haig’s screen work runs from The Thin Blue Line to his own Rudyard Kipling biopic My Boy Jack. Haig writes as well, of course, adding to the range of his work. His next play – about the Scottish meteorologist who advised Eisenhower to delay D-Day, saving thousands of lives – will premiere in Chichester next year.
“If anything gives me satisfaction professionally, it’s that variety,” he says. “To go from a Ben Elton sitcom to King Lear in the space of one year is fantastically lucky.”
Ah, yes, The Wright Way. Elton’s comedy, in which Haig played health and safety regulator Gerald Wright, has had some of the worst reviews in recent memory. He defends it staunchly, pointing out that viewing figures held up throughout the series. “I’m a huge supporter of Ben’s writing. I love his harking back to a British old-school, picture-postcard comedy, allied with incredible verbal dexterity and shrewd observation. Reviewers can’t bear that he aspires to old-fashioned, accessible comedy. The last time I had reviews like these was for The Thin Blue Line – and 13 million people watched that every time.”