theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
“I’ve worked with American actors on and off. You know, they’re a very down-to-earth bunch, this bunch; they’re from Chicago. They’d much rather sit around telling good stories than anything else, so!” Clare Higgins is plainly enjoying herself as Linda Loman opposite Brian Dennehy and company in Death of a Salesman at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.
She has been giving some remarkable performances these last few years, not least of which was the lead in Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse last autumn — “Clare Higgins gives the performance of a lifetime” (Kevin Quarmby, R& V) — for which she won her third Best Actress Olivier, having previously picked one up for Ursula Loyer in Vincent in Brixton, a performance which also earned her Critics’ Circle, Evening Standard and Tony awards, and ten years ago for Sweet Bird of Youth.
Honours and awards, however, are the last thing on her mind when it comes to work. “You know what, I don’t really think in those terms. You just do what you do and hopefully you do your best and work it out alright. That’s always been my philosophy.”
I first saw her on stage in 1983 in A Streetcar Named Desire. At the hands of director Alan Strachan she was giving an exceptional performance as Stella to an equally compelling study of Blanche by the late Sheila Gish. It was clear to me then that she was a performer of quite astonishing power. She was recently reminded of that time when attending Sheila Gish’s funeral. “It was the most amazing funeral. It was a humanitarian funeral. You’d have died — the coffin came in, painted with sunflowers, to the strains of Ian Dury’s ‘Wake Up and Make Love With Me’. If funerals can be fantastic, it was. And it did bring back the whole thing about Streetcar, it really did.”
Now, as Paul Taylor says in The Independent, she “continues to prove that she is one of the best actresses of her generation…” with her portrayal of salesman’s wife, Linda. I wondered if she had encountered any difficulties slotting into an essentially American production of Miller’s classic, one originally staged in the States in 1999.
“No, not really. They had all done it before but they hadn’t done it for a good few years. So for them, again, it was almost like coming to it fresh. The only given was the huge set, really. I’d never done the play before. I’ve only seen it once, about thirty years ago, I think. No, it was just like any other rehearsal period. It was nice to have the security that they knew what to do with the set! Apart from that, no, it was just exactly the same as normal.”
Born in Norwich, Higgins tells me that it was seeing Judi Dench as Hermione and Perdita in Trevor Nunn’s production of The Winter’s Tale at Stratford in 1969 that stirred her spirit. She found our foremost actress “quite miraculous” and “utterly inspirational”. It wasn’t like anything she’d thought she would ever see. “I had the pleasure of telling her that the other week,” she adds with decided pleasure.
A decade later she was accepted for training at LAMDA, and snapped up by Manchester Royal Exchange. In hindsight this was an excellent start to her career since the Royal Exchange Theatre Company, founded by Braham Murray et al on the back of their ’69 Theatre Company, had and sustains an excellent reputation with a record in giving early chances to such as Janet McTeer and Maggie O’Neill. Many of her contemporaries in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were still having to gain entry to the profession via weekly rep and less salubrious outlets. As Higgins says, she wasn’t aware at the time that it might have been considered an enviable start. “All I’ve got is my own experience. I was just overjoyed to get the job and really it just went from there.”
I have vivid memories of Higgins on television during the 1980s when she appeared in several notable series including the adaptation of A J Cronin’s The Citadel (1983) and Cover Her Face (1985), one of Roy Marsden’s earlier incarnations as P D James’s chief superintendent, Adam Dalgliesh. It is a great shame that we don’t see as much of her now. But times have changed. “I think most people would probably agree with me that there’s been a terrible dumbing down on television. There’s not much work for actors now. The dumbing down has taken over. I’m just hoping now it’s going to bottom out and we can get back to seeing proper plays.”
It would be too simplistic to say the present situation is entirely down to the incursion of the ‘money men’ in posts originally held by creative people and Higgins is much too intelligent to make such a glib assumption, expressing instead an uncertainty. “What I’m not quite sure of with television is whose agenda we’re fulfilling. I find it quite disturbing to say the least. There aren’t any plays on television any more. There are very few good series being commissioned and it really does seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel. And I just think we all deserve a bit better than that. I think the audiences are a lot brighter than that, myself.”
Back in April, she did an actors’ workshop as part of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass season, passing on experience gleaned over the last twenty-five years to a bunch of young actors who, I have no doubt, benefited greatly.
Perhaps she should also be passing on her knowledge in the States. “I’ve worked in America quite a lot over the last couple of years and the thing about America is I do find that some, particularly young American actors, come up and say things to you like, where did you train? So you tell them and they say, well, what method? Is it the Meisner method, is it the ‘this’ method, the ‘Strindberg’ method, the Strasberg, the ‘Inberg’ or the ‘Outburg’, or whatever ‘burger’ it is? And I always used to say the same thing to them: it’s just the school that believes it’s real. And they’d look at me and then they’d say, yeah, but where did you train for that? And I’d think: you know what, you’re never gonna be an actor. So, you know, forget it.”
An actor’s ultimate goal, she stresses, is to serve the text “because even if you fail, as long as you try to serve that text, that’s where your happiness is going to lie. It’s not about you. And they hate it when you say that.” For herself, she says she’d be happy to do it anonymously and I believe her. “It’s not about ‘me’, at all; it’s about serving a text, and if you’re lucky enough to be in that position, that’s all I want. It’s not about your ego, it’s not about your own personal fame, it’s not about anything to do with that. And if you think it is, well, good luck!”
Of course, fame is the spur for far too many. Not surprisingly, Higgins finds the cult of celebrity “pretty disappointing”. To be an actor, she says, “I think you’ve got to be quite a strong personality. And I get slightly concerned sometimes when, especially with young girls who are so obviously desperate to get into the business, after you ask them a few questions, it does emerge that actually what they want to do is be famous for acting.”
This is, she believes, a reprehensible attitude. “It’s a very up and down business — it’s a vocation and there are no quick journeys and no quick fixes for most of us. And I think you need to be pretty damn certain of the reason why you’re going to even try.” She goes further. “In fact, you’re a very small cog; even when you’re playing a lead, you’re serving something bigger than yourself. If it was about you, you’d be a maniac — it isn’t about you at all.”
She and I are far from alone in believing, as she puts it, that people think they’ve achieved something simply by gaining “a little bit of fame”. Her own definition of achievement is “looking back at the magic moments, remembering certain performances and remembering certain plays”. Focusing on fame is “completely the wrong way of looking at it”.
Higgins describes herself as an unashamed purist. “You read things from models or just ‘celebrities’ saying things like, well, I think I’m going to do some acting now, and you think: you know what, you’re not. If it was that easy, honey, everybody would be doing it. It’s not easy. Ian McKellen once said to me, ‘It is not easy.’”
And yet the impression given by those in the spotlight who misuse the nature of fame enables the media to treat all actors as people who do a job that anyone can do and have an easy ride earning a living. This is as demeaning to an audience as it is to an actor for whom fame is a possible by-product, not an objective.
“I suppose the only other thing that really irritates me is that if I see one more newspaper or magazine interview with an actress, could she please just keep her clothes on? Please. Because it would be so different. It would be kind of weird and wonderful if every single actress, no matter what age, could just keep all the clothes on. You know. Please, ladies, don’t do it.” It’s a heartfelt plea.
“We all have tits and we all have whatever,” she continues. “God, I’m no puritan, heaven knows, but God, it does wear me out. Sex oughtn’t to be boring but they’re making it boring.” She likens it to swimming in chocolate, saying that one can have “too much of a good thing”. Of one thing she is certain. “You can gather from that that I won’t be taking my clothes off in the near future!”
Now living within easy commuting distance of London, Higgins lived in Glastonbury for seven years and once described to an interviewer how, when she sat on Glastonbury Tor for the first time, she had “an extraordinary experience where everything just sort of went away, and I felt terribly happy when I came back…” Living in a culture that thrives on the misadventures, misdemeanours and supposed lack of morals or sanity in certain members of society, it is no surprise to hear about the reaction this mustered. Says Higgins: “Of course, when you’re an actress, people just go, ‘Well, she’s mad, you know — she’s gone off to live with the Druids now.’”
Clare Higgins is not mad. Clare Higgins is an actress with enormous focus who knows how to enjoy herself doing what she loves best, and at which she happens to excel — all in the service of a playwright’s world. Miss her in Salesman and you’ll regret it.
Sarah Vernon © 2005
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