Clare Higgins looks as though she would be a handful - in every good sense of the term. Voluptuous and cuddly in appearance, the acclaimed actress has a tantalising glint of mischief in her eye and a huge, conspiratorial smile. We meet during re-rehearsals for Vincent in Brixton, Nicholas Wright's Olivier award-winning drama about the young Van Gogh's experiences in London. The play conjectures that the future artist had a formative love affair with his middle-aged landlady, a role for which Higgins has won everything in sight, scooping up the Evening Standard, Olivier and Critics' Circle awards. Richard Eyre's beautifully intimate production, which began life in Cottesloe, opens tonight for a second run in the West End, after a successful stint on Broadway.
There is no lunch break on the day of this interview, so Higgins has to be let out by special dispensation, and I am warned by the company manager not to keep her for long. The injunction lends a slightly naughty air of snatched truancy to our encounter, in an empty pub opposite the Kennington church hall where they are rehearsing. Perhaps because of the faint atmosphere of bunking-off, I find myself asking about her schooldays. I say I've noticed that she went to a convent school. "I went to several, actually - short stays at most of them," she reveals, with her infectious laugh. Did she tend to get expelled? "I certainly did." For what? "Oh, things like singing 'Hey, Big Spender' in the headmistress's office when I'd been to the pub at lunchtime." Having given up smoking only the day before, she goes to cadge a light from the woman behind the bar, who tells her that she has no will power. "None whatsoever - and proud of it," she replies gaily.
Clare Higgins's warmth and humane intelligence come over all the more powerfully for the parodic hints of actressy high camp she allows to flicker round her conversation. She has scored some of her greatest successes playing larger-than-life divas. Where she excels is in suggesting the susceptible woman under the hard, gaudy icon. As one critic wrote of her Cleopatra for the RSC: "Clare Higgins has all the faces of Cleopatra and spins them like a colour wheel, before she rips off her wig and confronts death with a close-cropped head." As the couple, she and Richard Johnson's Antony displayed the richly disarming ability to stand back, all of a sudden, from the myth they were manufacturing and burst out laughing at their own magniloquent gestures.
Higgins went on to deliver a sublime performance as Alexandra del Lago, the faded film goddess fleeing failure in a haze of drink in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth. As well as the curled-at-the-edges glamour, ball-breaking wit and drag-turn defiance ("I'm being used. Why not? Even a dead horse is used to make glue"), Higgins brought to the role a vulnerability that gave depth and pathos to the character's intuitive sympathy with the gigolo toy boy whose youth is also slipping away.
The actress had come to be identified with the kind of female whom it would be hard to picture in a kitchen - Cleopatra, Alexandra, Arkadina. So when Vincent in Brixton opened last May, it was initially something of a shock to discover her in a dour black dress, in a petit-bourgeois kitchen, slaving away at the Sunday roast. But surprise was quickly replaced by the conviction that, in this least showy of parts, Higgins was giving the performance of a lifetime. Ursula, the landlady, is widowed, progressive in outlook and clinically depressed. Capable of moments of visionary perception, but handicapped by the blackness of her temperament, she yearns to point the way and help to launch remarkable talent in others. In her, Van Gogh (played with a wonderful gauche impulsiveness by Jochum ten Haaf) finds a mirror and a lover. But will Vincent, yet to find his vocation, consent to be the protégé she desires?
Higgins finds the role inexhaustibly rich to perform. "It's quite a spare play. In written form, it's really very short. So a lot happens in the silences, and that gives you an awful lot of freedom. What happens in those silences every night tends to be very different. I've learnt more about silence on stage in the past year than I have from anything before. In the long second scene, there's this 20-year-old man and this 45-year-old woman, and really nothing happens - except that somehow they go from the beginning, where they are barely acknowledging each other as people, to the end, where they are locked in this passionate fervour. And what I love to explore is how delicate, how subtle that process can be, and to play it as a sort of chess game. Small movements mean everything. Silences mean everything. A blink. A word. And if you hold a pause for just that bit longer, it means something else." Her performance, a masterpiece of stillness and heartbreaking understatement, has all the virtues of cinematic close-up in theatrical long shot. "You can tell she's being seduced," commented one reviewer, "because she lifts an eyebrow."
It's a portrayal that feels deeply empathetic. "Yes, I've had my own bouts with depression, and I am puzzled as to why there's still this terrible stigma attached to it. It seems easier, almost, to say that you've had an experience of paedophilia than to admit that you've had an experience of clinical depression." The play is acute about the onset of the problem ("It starts with something small and then it becomes about everything") and about the self-doubt that depression entails, leaving even the most desperate sufferers with the added burden of feeling like guilty malingerers.
"Absolutely. There's no blood test for it," Higgins proclaims. "You haven't eaten for a week, you can't sleep, you're paranoid as hell, and your anxiety level is such that you can barely get out of bed. But one still tends to say, 'Am I a fraud?'
"I also think that severe depression has a spiritual component. I feel that strongly," she adds. In the play, Ursula tries to describe the moments of vision that happen when, as Van Gogh puts it, she falls into the darkness of her own soul. An extreme sense of exclusion can be a piercing perspective from which to bear powerless witness to the beauty and religious significance of the world. I have heard that Higgins has become a "part-time Druid".
"I resent the label 'part-time'," she laughs. "It's a bit like describing someone as a weekend Catholic." Sitting on Glastonbury Tor one day, she had "an extraordinary experience where everything just sort of went away, and I felt terribly happy when I came back. And I said, 'Well, this place obviously means something to me,' and I decided to take a chance on it." She has lived in Glastonbury for the past seven years. "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.'"
In fact, it was not such a startling move. "At school, I wanted to be three things. I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a Druid - oh yes, I was a bit of a nature-worshipper even then. And I also wanted to be a psychiatrist." Though she jokes that being an actress is "quite a camp way of practising psychiatry", she does acknowledge with relish that all her teenage ambitions have now come together in her life. At which point, the company manager decides that they cannot manage a moment longer without her. "Vincent in Brixton," she muses happily on the way out: "It's the play that wouldn't die."
'Vincent in Brixton' is at the Playhouse, London WC2 (020-7369 1785) to 30 August, then touringReuse content