`It's a huge emotional effort. But I'm addicted...'

You'd think writing plays would come easy to David Hare by now. But confronting inner demons is all part of the job.
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The Independent Culture
Early on in Amy's View, the new play by David Hare, a journalist- on-the-make and incipient cultural arbiter describes the lesson he has learnt from writing about the famous. "I noticed," says Dominic, who will later marry Amy, despite the misgivings of her mother Esme, "if I write something praiseful, they feel sort of grateful ... You think perhaps by now they'd be more secure. But not at all. No, you write as if you like them and suddenly they're really responsive ... it almost shocks me how much

It would be convenient to assume that Dominic's view is an accurate reflection of his creator's own relationship with the press. Fourth estate writes nice things about playwright: playwright rolls over and lets himself be stroked, in manner of playwright's dog Blanche when journalist turns up for interview. In fact, this is the first interview Hare has given to a national newspaper for four years. So he hasn't been that responsive. But like Dominic's interviewees, he does own up to an insecurity that goes all the way back to his arrival at Lancing, a scholarship boy from Bexhill-on-Sea. "I'm still a depressive, I think," he says, "but then there are very few writers with sunny dispositions." And what form do his depressions take? "Oh, a chronic sense of failure: gloom, worthlessness, all those things I write about. I can't write about them without knowing about them."

He may be acting (although he was always "useless at it") but the chronically depressive playwright seemed thoroughly chipper in a baggy black linen suit on a damp morning last week halfway between the opening of Amy's View and re-opening of Skylight. He lives at the other end of Hampstead but works here, with the faithful Blanche in tow, in a studio that must once have been a chapel. There's a futon up on the mezzanine, and books everywhere (including the complete Dick Francis). Its occupant has an easy manner, a patrician voice notwithstanding the odd glottal stop, a camp looseness in the joints, and an odd way of pulling his chin back into his neck to emphasise a point. Physically, at least, he seems at one with himself.

Periodically the phone goes off. It's always "Richard" or "Tom", and there's not much room for doubt about the callers' identities: Sir Richard and Sir Tom to you and me. It's surely only a matter of time till it's Sir David. Hare's line on this is enigmatic, and takes the form of quoting Eric Satie's rebuke to a friend who boasted of turning down an honour. " `It seems to me not that you should boast of turning down an honour but that you should live the kind of life where they never offer you an honour in the first place.' I have absolutely no criticism of anyone who wants to accept honours. But it doesn't quite seem to me probably what writers should be doing."

He offers two reasons for his abstention from interviews. The first, that he "learnt from doing it myself how easy selective quotation is to make anybody look an idiot", sounds like a cover for the second, that "people were coming in bad faith, determined to write the story they wanted to write before they met me". His state of the nation trilogy - Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War - was meat and drink to what he calls "the whole I'm-not-impressed-by-this school of journalism, which is a very powerful school these days".

The resumption of trial-by-interview is a small sea change among several larger ones currently reshaping the boundaries of Hare's life. On the wider scale, there's the Labour victory that his work has implicitly campaigned for all these years - even if the party's defeat in 1992 gave him The Absence of War, certainly his most powerful large-scale play. He refers to the Blair landslide as a "very dramatic reversal": perhaps there's a drama in it. Then there is the impending departure from the National of (Sir) Richard Eyre, his old Cambridge chum and director of choice. Next year, after a run of 11 plays on the South Bank, they're taking Hare's next work, The Judas Kiss, to the Almeida (where Hare himself has already found a second home as a director; in August he directs Heartbreak House).

And this year the playwright turned 50 - not an easy hurdle for anyone, but one Hare has had more trouble overcoming than, say, certain pop music contemporaries who are granted a clearer mandate to grow old disgracefully. "It's professionally very tough," he says. "Every generation of playwrights arrives iconoclastically and it's a very good impulse in an artist - `this is all bollocks, I stand for this' - and for a long time you think of yourself as replacing a generation of playwrights, not being a generation of playwrights." And though the writing grows ever more mature and complex and ambiguous, he claims it isn't getting any easier. "A contemporary of mine said to me recently, `I'm just not up for the emotional effort that's involved in writing a proper play any more.' And it is, it's horrendous, it's absolutely ghastly. You can't write a play like Amy's View without confronting the ugliest in yourself and scouring it. It's a huge emotional effort. But I'm addicted now. I would miss it if I didn't do it, and also thematically I'm on to something which is very very rich and which I want to go on working at."

Superficially Hare's next play sounds like a departure. The Judas Kiss, which he has customised from a screenplay rejected in Hollywood, takes as its spur the betrayal of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas. In fact it links up with Skylight and Amy's View as a sort of romantic trilogy to counterbalance the political one. "I do believe in romantic love. I think Amy's life is better lived for wanting love and giving a lot up for love, and I think it's a wonderful way to live ... Wilde is a person who gave up everything for a love which turned out to be worthless. And it interests me very much about whether that was a waste of a life or a fulfilled life."

There are currently no complaints in Hare's own romantic life. He has been married since 1992 to the designer Nicole Farhi with whom, even as you read, he's currently on safari in Kenya. He is "personally terribly happy. I've felt much more at peace with myself than I did all the years I was living alone." His first marriage ended in 1980, slap in the middle of a creative drought prompted by the disappointing reception for Plenty, then his most ambitious play. At this caesura in his career, when he gave up writing plays about overthrowing the system and almost gave up altogether, the Hares disappeared to America. When I ask him what he did there he says "suffer mostly. We went everywhere and it was just terrible. We had terrible years. It was just an awful, awful time."

He dipped his toe back in the water by refocusing on the Third World. A Map of the World, which he discreetly mounted in Adelaide of all places (only to bump into two British critics at the first preview), is one of the plays he describes as "carpentry", the plays "you have to do because that's the only way you learn". Murmuring Judges is another bit of carpentry. So, if we're honest, are most of his screenplays. He never found a way of putting the passion and wit of his plays into his scripts, and seems to have given up trying. "The long journey you need to go on to become a real film maker - I simply don't have the time. What I hate about film is that it's entirely unpredictable. You can be having a wonderful experience while you make it and the film turns out to be a total dog." (See Damage. Strapless. And Plenty. But not if you can avoid them.)

So it's theatre from now on. In Amy's View, Dominic disseminates the idea that theatre is dead, and the riposte from Esme, a West End actress down on her luck, is apparently being applauded every night. "Have you noticed? It's always the death of theatre. The death of the novel. The death of poetry. The death of whatever they fancy this week. Except there's one thing it's never the death of. Somehow it's never the death of themselves." The play ends with Esme, now old but back in the West End in a surprise hit, walking away from the real audience but towards an imaginary one upstage. Between them, Eyre and Hare couldn't have come up with a more wordlessly eloquent affirmation that theatre is healthy. "It's in better shape than it has been," says Hare. "It's more confident. People have stopped apologising about it. There should now be a 10-year moratorium on `theatre is dead' articles." With Hare more passionate at 50 than any of his pop contemporaries, theatre may even be, to use a phrase that's also due for abolition, the new rock 'n' roll.

`Amy's View', at the Lyttleton, National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252); `Skylight', at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2, booking to 11 Oct (0171-836 9987)