David Haig

Published April 17, 2008

The Sea may be calming for some, but it certainly isn’t for David Haig. Playing the mad draper in Edward Bond’s drama has come hot on the heels of his last West End outing, an equally energetic role in The Country Wife, also at the Haymarket. All in all, it is the sixth time he has been reviewed in the West End in the last four years – he counted. It might be time to slow down, Haig tells Caroline Bishop…

By night he plays a man obsessed by invading aliens who goes mad over a pair of curtains, by day he is a family man who loves filling his time writing, taking long lunches and hanging out with his wife and five children. When I call him on this particular day, David Haig is relaxing at home with nothing more serious to worry about than the difference between fruit cake and bread cake, a slice of which he is eating as we speak. “Have you ever had bread cake? It looks like fruit cake and I thought I was buying fruit cake, but I am now reliably informed I wasn’t,” he tells me in a mild-mannered, faintly surprised fashion. “But it’s nice.”

I am glad. Haig deserves his relaxation time at home after coming through “the most tiring six weeks I have ever had in the profession”. Now the press has seen The Sea, Haig has his days back, no longer having to rehearse during the day and perform in The Country Wife at night, the double-whammy he brought on himself by agreeing to take part in the first two productions of Jonathan Kent’s three-production season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

After playing the cuckolded Squire Pinchwife in Restoration comedy The Country Wife before Christmas, Haig has now taken on the equally high energy, neurotic, but darker role of the mad draper Hatch in Edward Bond’s Edwardian-set comic drama The Sea. It is a role he has played before, more than 30 years ago when he was a drama student at LAMDA in the 1970s. Though he remembers thinking at the time that it was “an extraordinarily diverse and expansive play, and I feel that today as much as I did then”, he says revisiting the play felt like a completely fresh enterprise. “I have no memory of the role other than the fact I knew he believed in aliens, I knew he went mad over a piece of cloth and I knew he stabbed a corpse. Those were the three ingredients that I carried with me for 30 years.”

“It has its own pressures, performing live night in, night out, and being judged so relentlessly”

He was delighted to be able to revisit that unusual trio of ingredients as part of Kent’s season, which he calls “extraordinarily exciting”. However, playing Hatch directly after Pinchwife, the challenge for Haig has been to make the two roles distinct from one another. “Because I wanted to do these two plays I didn’t think of that, but as I actually started working on The Sea I was concerned that I was playing two versions of madness, and certainly in the future I won’t leap at a part with the same driven neurosis again for a while.”

Playing this “driven madness” is mentally and physically exhausting, and Haig, who gave up booze for the duration of overlap of the two plays, is now back on the Stella Artois as an essential wind-down at the end of each performance. “The first relaxing thing I do is go into my fellow coastguards’ dressing room and have a beer, because we come off quarter of an hour before the end. So that is a luxury, I tell you, it’s great.”

He must be used to feeling exhausted though, because Haig certainly seems to like piling work on himself. The actor’s moustachioed face may be best known for his screen roles (particularly Inspector Grim in comedy series The Thin Blue Line and Bernard in the film Four Weddings And A Funeral), but Haig has been ubiquitous in the West End over the last few years. Since 2003 he has appeared in Hitchcock Blonde at the Royal Court and Lyric, the hugely successful production of Journey’s End at the Comedy in 2004, going on to spend a year and a half as Mr Banks in the musical Mary Poppins, for which he received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination, repeating that success with his performance as Headingley in the revival of Michael Frayn’s Oxbridge farce Donkeys’ Years at the Comedy in 2006.

The latter was another high energy, hugely physical role which saw Haig spend half of the play with his trousers round his ankles. “I do enjoy those huge energy ones,” he says. “It’s because if you’re moving at that sort of rate physically, you haven’t got time for your head to interfere with what you’re thinking and make itself conscious, and therefore you can at times act out of yourself. It’s too exhausting to actually get bogged down in a cerebral journey.”

Following Donkeys’ Years, Haig was determined to give himself six months away from the stage. He did, but still managed to fill it by writing and then filming the television drama My Boy Jack, based on the play that Haig originally wrote about Rudyard Kipling and his family.

Is he a workaholic? It seems Haig has already posed himself this question, and the outcome of a quick consultation with his wife, hovering in the background of our phone call, is that he is not. “I think you can be a workaholic because you don’t say no to a load of jobs in a row, and so it can be defined as a workaholic from the outside, but I think a workaholic by instinct is somebody very different,” he says. “I think a workaholic is unavoidably driven to continue to work, either because they’d rather not face what life means perhaps without work, or for other reasons. But I’m very happy with my life outside work, and kids and the family and time and space; in fact I very much don’t want to be a workaholic for the next 10 years. But it’s terribly difficult – if somebody rang me up tomorrow with one of the roles that I dream of playing, and said it starts a week after the end of this and it’s with one of the finest companies in the country, what do you say?”

“I always worry that it’s going to explode one day, into a puff of smoke”

Bar this happening, Haig does want to make a concerted effort to reduce his theatrical output, partly because he wants to pursue other aspects of his career – in particular, writing – but also because he needs a break from the pressure cooker of the stage. “It has its own pressures, performing live night in, night out, and being judged so relentlessly,” he says. “When you do a TV or a film, you’re only judged retrospectively, nobody sees the process, whereas in three or four hours’ time I shall go in [to the theatre] and I shall be judged again by a group of people. That has its own pressure. I think that builds, if you do a lot over a short period of time. I certainly felt it at the press night of The Sea. It wasn’t that I was particularly more or less nervous than usual, I just wanted to stop being judged. So that’s a good reason to rest, to not do theatre for a little while.”

It is a pressure that is partly self-imposed: “I think one of the things is I’m very competitive with myself, so I think the reason I can keep going on these long runs with these high energy parts is I’m always determined not to let myself down. That, I think, is the driving force behind me more than anything almost.”

It is not surprising then, that if he continues at his current rate, Haig doesn’t see himself still treading the boards at septuagenarian co-star Eileen Atkins’s age. “I don’t know if I see myself being here at all at that age,” he says. “I always worry that it’s going to explode one day, into a puff of smoke!”

Thankfully, Haig is going to ease off before that happens: “I think the extremity of this present job has told me something, instructed me to slow down for a year or two, to really regenerate and rejuvenate the batteries, particularly with live performance. I would love to work hard at writing or some filming or telly or something, but I want to be very careful about the next theatre job I take.”

So while we may not see him on stage again straight away, Haig will be pursuing something that seems closer to his heart at the moment – writing. Following My Boy Jack, which was first produced at Hampstead theatre in 1997 before subsequent tours and last year’s ITV adaptation, Haig wrote a second play, The Good Samaritan, also staged at the Hampstead in 2000. He has written a third, which he jovially declares is “crap and will probably never reach the light of day” but has plans for another, and a couple of projects with the same ITV producing team. After years of being “a component part of the picture” as an actor, Haig relishes writing because it allows him “intellectual control” over the project. It also helps relieve those self-imposed pressures a little. “I find I’m more liberated as an actor because it isn’t everything in my life anymore. Therefore I don’t get as neurotically tied up in whether I’m achieving something. I take bigger risks as an actor.”

Though he never reads reviews of his acting, for “self-preservation”, he does consult the critics on his writing, as well as those whose opinion he values most. “Originally when I first started writing [My Boy Jack] I sent it off to most of the directors I admired, starting with Max Stafford-Clark [who directed Haig at the Royal Court in the 1980s], who said it ends well but it’s bloody boring until you get to the end,” he laughs. “So these brutally honest opinions were what forged my opinion of the whole process really.”

It is clear as he talks about it that he gets a real buzz out of writing. Coupled with the fact that it allows him to spend more time at home with his family, he will “definitely” be concentrating more on his writing when he finishes his run in The Sea in April. Maybe, for now, he will leave the acting to his eldest daughter, 22-year-old Alice, whose first post-drama school job was Holding Fire! at Shakespeare’s Globe last year.

One thing is certain – we won’t be seeing him in the third production in Kent’s Haymarket season, the new musical Marguerite. “I’ve done my one musical and I enjoyed that,” he says, referring to Mary Poppins. “But I think if I ever had to have a microphone taped to my ear again they’d have to pay me a fortune. Drives you mad.” And Haig’s had quite enough madness for one year, thank you very much.

The Sea runs until 19 April i>CB