Acclaimed actress Clare Higgins tells Caroline Bishop about the joy of the stage and the demise of the screen.
“I don’t understand the term ‘problem play’, I never have,” says Clare Higgins. “I don’t think Shakespeare writes problem plays, he writes plays, and I don’t see any problems in this play at all. I really don’t know what people mean about that.”
Immediately on meeting triple Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress Higgins during a rehearsal break at the National Theatre it becomes apparent that she is not one to sit on the proverbial fence. She is, in fact, sitting on a couch, sporting a twinkle in her smile and a directness in her gaze that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that a play is most definitely a play.
The distinctly unproblematic play she is referring to is All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare’s rarely performed drama which director Marianne Elliott is reviving at the National Theatre, with Higgins playing the Countess de Rossillion. One of his lesser known works, its plot centres on gentlewoman Helena, who doggedly pursues a caddish count who has no interest in her and treats her badly. Helena finally snares her man after tricking him into bed. The cynical, tragicomic nature of the story has led to it being termed by some scholars to be a ‘problem play’, one which is difficult to categorise as comedy or tragedy.
“I think if it was a boy playing it [Helena], there probably wouldn’t be a problem,” Higgins says. “It’s a wonderful play I think, it’s one of my favourite plays of his, if not my favourite, and the only problem I can see in this play is that it’s not done enough really. It’s a fantastic play, it’s a very magical text, it’s a very hidden text and it’s very powerful and I don’t want to fall into the easy trap of saying ‘oh it’s a feminist play’. I hate that word, it’s meaningless. It’s a wonderful play about a wonderful heroine and I don’t think it’s a problem at all.”
The Countess – Helena’s guardian and the mother of Bertram, the man she pursues – is, says Higgins “a wonderful character to play. There’s a very strong bond between her and Helena, which is particularly pointed up in this play. There’s a lot of female power behind the scenes in this play, maybe that’s also a problem for people, I don’t know. It’s a wonderful part, a very strong part, and it’s thrilling to be able to do something that’s not very often done.”
“There’s a lot of female power behind the scenes in this play, maybe that’s also a problem for people, I don’t know.”
The Countess is yet another strong role in a 30-year stage career in which Higgins has embodied a succession of powerful, flawed, sometimes rapacious characters. She has played the ultimate symbol of female power, Cleopatra, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the brash divorcee Maxine in Tennessee Williams’s The Night Of The Iguana in the West End and the revengeful Hecuba for the Donmar Warehouse, earning the third of her hat trick of Laurence Olivier Awards. The other two came for playing faded actress Alexandra in Sweet Bird Of Youth and Van Gogh’s landlady in Vincent In Brixton in 1995 and 2003, both at the National Theatre, where she has worked frequently and which she considers “the best theatre in England”. In the last year alone she has starred there as Jocasta in Oedipus, as Lady Undershaft in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara and Flora in Pinter’s A Slight Ache. She joins the cast of All’s Well That Ends Well hot on the heels of her solo performance in Wallace Shawn’s The Fever at the Royal Court.
Higgins is certainly not afraid of hard work. In fact she categorically dismisses any notion that performing in one show whilst rehearsing for another, as she has just done, is at all arduous. “We’re not down a mine, we’re not working in a call centre, we’re actors. So it can be a bit pushing on you time-wise to rehearse during the day and perform at night but considering we’re doing a job that 95% of people would like to do, I don’t think it’s that bad,” she says, before adding as an afterthought: “People tend to treat us as though we’re consumptive invalids for some reason, I don’t know why.”
In what way? “It’s all this nonsense that’s talked about anybody who’s in the public eye,” she explains. “It’s this insistence on seeing them as being somehow special and different when they are really not.
“I think we are going through a particular period of idiocy with anyone who has ever been on television or anything, and to me it really is idiotic; truly is frightening and idiotic. We’re just people doing a job. There’s nothing special about us at all,” she says emphatically.
She is right, of course. Higgins is just doing a job, albeit one which courts the public’s attention more than most. However, as an actress who has worked predominantly on stage, Higgins says she is less plagued by the “nonsense” that other actors she knows encounter. “They can hardly live up to being treated like a god,” she adds.
“People tend to treat us as though we’re consumptive invalids for some reason”
Higgins has many screen credits in character roles – she was recently seen in BBC drama Being Human – but apart, perhaps, from her appearance in cult 80s zombie flick Hellraiser and its sequel, she is not as known for screen work as she is for stage. Would she like to be? “Things have changed an awful lot in television,” she responds. “Now you really only get offered large things to do on television if you’ve been on some reality show so it doesn’t really enter into most of our lives any more. It used to, when they did drama, but now they really don’t. It’s the ruination of television but no one seems to care so it’s fine.”
Doesn’t she consider there to be any quality television drama out there? “Not really. Very few, and in order to be cast in those you need to have a very, very high film profile, reality television profile, or something like that these days.”
It is a view shared by many in the profession. Her words echo Andrew Lincoln’s recent comments to The Stage in which he accused reality television, which is cheap to produce, of pushing drama out of the schedules and thus creating a shortage of work for actors. “I think everybody’s pretty much aware of what’s happening in television so it doesn’t really take me to say anything much about it,” Higgins adds. “I think everyone feels the same about the lack of quality and the dross that we’re asked to watch.”
While she would no doubt give UK television commissioners short shrift, thankfully Higgins believes that “we probably have the best theatre in the world”.
She has played no small part in it since her career began to flourish in the 1980s, after she graduated from the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMDA), which she attended thanks to a government grant, something Higgins has typically ardent views on. “If I was in that position now I wouldn’t get funding so I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, which is something I think most of us in the business feel pretty strongly about as well,” she says. “There’s so much talent out there and not a lot of it is going to get into drama schools because they simply can’t afford it. Which I think is pretty shameful.”
She says she had a “very strong feeling” from an early age that acting was what she wanted to do, and feels fortunate that she was not waylaid from that route. It would have been easy to be; in her teens, Higgins was expelled from school and later fell pregnant with a son, who was adopted.
While her sisters followed her parents to university and into teaching, Higgins veered from family tradition by choosing drama school. I suggest this decision showed she must have been pretty determined to become an actor and she agrees, but then adds, somewhat defensively: “I came from a very academic family. But acting isn’t all beer and skittles, you have to know your stuff, you have to know your texts, have to really be as educated as you can be if you’re going to make any sense out of most of the scripts that you get asked to read in the theatre. So although none of my family are involved in this business, it’s not a question of them all being sort of academics and me being Shirley Temple,” she chuckles. “The word ‘actress’ often has all this baggage around it but again it’s meaningless.”
“I think everyone feels the same about the lack of quality and the dross that we’re asked to watch”
The successful career that burgeoned swiftly after LAMDA – she received her first Laurence Olivier Award nomination in 1984 for A Streetcar Named Desire – is ample evidence that Higgins made the right decision, and though she has no need to prove herself academically, she has done so by training as a psychotherapist, adding a second string to her bow that she feels is vital for actors, who inhabit an industry where there are no guarantees of work.
Though she sometimes practises as a psychotherapist, she has no plans for this second career to supersede the first. Higgins will continue acting “as long as people ask me to”. Judging by her workload over the past few years, it seems the requests just keep coming, for which she is thoroughly appreciative. “Every single thing I’ve ever done means a lot to me, it really does,” she says. “I’m amazed I’m allowed to go on doing this and I feel very lucky, very privileged.”
She may have issues with celebrity culture and the demise of television, but it seems when it comes to the theatre, Higgins has no problems at all. “It’s rather like living,” she summarises, somewhat cryptically, as our conversation comes to an end. “You find out something new every time you do it.”
All’s Well That Ends Well is part of the Travelex £10 Tickets season at the National Theatre.