The hidden persuader

John Walsh meets the playwright David Hare, an establishment outsider who's content to dissent. Photograph by Gautier Deblonde
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The first thing you discover about David Hare is that he works on a stage set. His nine-to-five days in London are spent at the end of a Hampstead back-street, in a studio apartment once owned by the painter Mark Gertler. Once inside, you find yourself in a well-upholstered shell: you take in the rich, book-lined walls (very Terence Rattigan) of the main arena; you note the Shakespearean balcony where the lanky dramaturge crashes out at night on a severe-looking futon; you inspect the discreetly off-stage kitchen and bathroom, tucked away as though by a tidy-minded Cottesloe designer. The whole thing is smoothly theatrical. If the ceiling were a jungle of track-spotlights, and a whole section of the floor suddenly revolved beneath Mr Hare's feet, you wouldn't be a bit surprised.

The man himself is an enfant terrible of the British theatre, now well and truly grown up, a Juvenile Lead face attached to a middle-aged Ibsen Hero body. You are prepared for the fact that he is tall, restless, angular and dismayingly articulate, as he sits at his desk with his murky grey sweater and "I'm an Archers Addict" coffee mug. What's surprising is how irrepressibly jolly he is. Hare has been a major figure in British drama since 1970, when Slag started life just down the road from here at Hampstead Theatre, transferred a year later to the Royal Court and thence to New York; for 27 years, he has been a byword for intelligent, cool, politically engaged and bracingly pissed-off dramas about England and Englishness. His reputation suggests a public schoolboy (Lancing) and university agitator (Cambridge) who never lost the bliss of abusing national institutions and national character defects that invigorated young intellectuals in the Sixties. He has not, however, been known over the years for his uproarious sense of humour. Yet his conversation is punctuated by constant yelps of delight, gossipy indiscretions, giggles of astonishment at the folly of the political world. He even has a special-occasions braying laugh. Even when at his most serious, he seems like a man in the grip of a huge and delicious secret, one that informs every thought, every subject, with a grain of ridicule.

The reason for his good mood might, of course, be simply the prospect of leaving freezing London shortly to spend Christmas in the Maldives with his wife, Nicole Farhi, the fashion designer. But it's simpler to assume that David Hare at 50, after half a lifetime of dissent and iconoclasm, is just a contented man. His most recent play, Amy's View, a critical success and box-office sell-out at the National since it opened last June, transfers to the Aldwych on 14 January. His new play, The Judas Kiss, starring Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde, opens at north London's small but hyper-trendy Almeida Theatre for five weeks in March, and it does not take a Nostradamus to predict a modest success for that, too, before it departs for New York. The day I came to see him, his main worry was the ordeal of being photographed by Lord Snowdon. "His assistant just rang to fix a date on which we can discuss how the shoot went," says Hare, marvelling at the fuss.

His 50th year has been an unusually interesting one, I observed, for a socialist, an anti-monarchist, a crowd-watcher and/or a connoisseur of the democratic process. How, for instance, had he spent election night? "I was at The Importance of Being Oscar [Simon Callow's one-man celebration of Wilde], which I found very, very hard to concentrate on because I kept thinking: when do the polls close? Then I was at the Daily Telegraph party, watching people weep." This is not merely sadistic voyeurism on his part; one of Hare's more confusing incarnations of late has been as a Telegraph columnist in the run-up to the election, and a why-oh-why polemicist in its feature pages, whether, famously, praising the decency of John Major or, more recently, complaining about the Government's proposed levying of entrance fees in museums. ("I much prefer writing for a paper with whom I'm not mentally in accord," he explains. "It's more useful for the readers and more interesting for me. And it's a much more liberal place to be than the supposedly liberal newspapers.") Election night, though - "What was interesting was that, even at that party, there were scarcely any people in the room who, for one reason or another, weren't keen to see the government kicked out. The only person who threw a wobbly was Major's sister, who started shouting at Sinead Cusack, `You don't belong here. Get out. Don't gloat. This is a tragedy'. There were raised voices and some fists flew later, I believe, but it was more from a generalised sense that this was the passage of history than because anybody actually lamented."

As Hare describes the party, you catch a glimpse of his visual imagination at work, turning the scene into a lively Act III of a future drama - background hubbub, foreground confrontation, offstage violence, the personal and the political seamlessly conflated. "When I'm writing, I do have a little theatre in my head where it all goes on," he says. "I like to have some idea of the stage on which the thing is to be performed, but in my mind it's the Olivier. And it's properly lit. And there always has to be a painterly moment. That's essential. There has to be a moment which is like a painting, hung on the wall in my mind."

The dramatist in Hare's head has wrestled with the political thinker for a quarter-century now. It goes back to Cambridge, where he never felt at home and about whose other alumni he is sweetly acidulous. "I keep meeting people who say they were at Cambridge with me. I was there with Salman Rushdie, but Salman remembers me much more clearly than I remember him. I have a strange amnesia about the place, because I didn't want to be there. It was the Sixties, and there were a lot more interesting things going on down in London." He argued with his tutor, the Welsh socialist guru Raymond Williams, about the futility of seeing literature as a hierarchy of excellence, a grading of texts, and claims - to the fury of Williams's acolytes everywhere - that the great man finally agreed with him. And he left to form a travelling grass-roots theatre company, the Portable Theatre, with Tony Bicat. He never, he says, wanted to go into politics. "I'm temperamentally unsuited. My stamina is a writer's stamina, not an ideologue's stamina. I'm not a debater. I'm not great on panels. I'm a stater of a position. I can work out a point of view but I couldn't turn up on Any Questions to argue it, because I'd be no good."

A more useful insight into his agit-prop aesthetic comes when he muses about his mates. "The funny thing is, I've ended up as close friends with a lot of people who were at Cambridge before I went there - Richard Eyre and Howard Brenton and Stephen Frears. They were the generation who worshipped Antonioni, and we were the people who worshipped Godard."

A longer-lasting obsession was Oscar Wilde, the subject of his new play and a rare excursion into the past for this most contemporary of writers. "I've always loved Wilde. I've always read him. I know a lot about him. I suppose I wrote this because I think people get him wrong. What interests me about him is that we have a 20th century in which honesty and sincerity are held to be the primary virtues, yet here is a writer who says, On the contrary, concealment is the most powerful thing, out of concealment you can make something that's poetically more truthful, all that baring of the soul gets you nowhere. You can just imagine Wilde's reaction to the death of Diana." Hare grins ironically. "He does seem a very unlikely hero for the gay liberation movement. All the power in his work came from his presence in the closet. Far from wanting to be outed, he worked by metaphor and analogy and concealment, and when he could no longer do that, he could no longer write. He'd lost his subject. The last thing he wanted was to make a public cause of his homosexuality. When Bosie [Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas] went around Europe saying, `Let us write in favour of Greek love', Oscar was horrified. It was that, quite as much as going to prison, that destroyed him as an artist."

Hare had a mid-career crisis in the mid-Eighties, when theatre audiences fell off and his peers seemed fated to become Burbank screenwriters. "There was a clear moment when all my friends had to make a choice - stay in theatre or work in movies and go to Hollywood. But there's a point at which you say `Fuck it, I don't care what the culture tells me this thing is worth. I think it's worth a lot. So, at the end of the Eighties, I put all my chips on one square and said I'm going to work in the theatre exclusively, and refine what I do. It's been very fulfilling, it's made me very happy, and I'm not at the mercy of a lot of stupid people, as I would be in the movies or TV."

The last seven years have been his most professionally successful, with the several stagings and revivals of his trilogy of "institution" plays - Racing Demon (the British clergy unfrocked), Murmuring Judges (the law and the police brought to book) and The Absence of War (the moral anaemia of politicians). Their head-on confrontations with the Doric columns of the British establishment are a long way removed from the more generalised radical angst of Hare's earlier plays. They begged questions. Why, for instance, was the heroine of Plenty so chronically irritated by everything in post-war England? When the suicidal youth in Wetherby was said by his own friends to have suffered from "a central, transfiguring blankness", it was a remark that might have been thrown at David Hare about his own work. Drama critics might point to the influence of Pinter or the nouvelle vague film-makers of the Sixties as being responsible. Amateur psychologists might relate it to the absence of a father in Hare's childhood in Bexhill- on-Sea, Sussex. "My father was a sailor and was away for eleven months of the year. He was a complete enigma." So when he came home, it was a big event? "Totally. But he came back with money and that was the thing. He came with a big roll of notes, which sailors were still given in those days, and, because he was a purser, he'd bring frozen sheep and fruit from New Zealand and toys from Hong Kong and these things would pour into our lives for a couple of weeks and then he'd go away again and we'd be back on mince and potatoes. So he represented wealth and plenty."

Ah Plenty... David Hare has no problem with accusations of phoniness. He laughed when I said how much I'd been affected by his two televised Plays for Today, Licking Hitler (1978) and Dreams of Leaving (1980) but that I couldn't tell if it was through identifying with the theme of corrupted innocence or because both plays featured devastatingly sexy roles for Kate Nelligan. "Yeah, that worked in my favour. I was very pleased with Dreams of Leaving, but I knew lots of people found it completely pointless. They were made angry by it. They said, `This blankness is just infuriating'. But, of course, it could only work with as great an actress as Kate." He speaks warmly of Ms Nelligan, who is a former girlfriend, as have been a number of actresses, including Penny Downie and Blair Brown. He married Margaret Matheson, a TV drama producer, with whom he had three children, Joe, Lewis and Darcy; the couple split up in 1980.

These days, he thinks, some critics are too idle or too dim to notice that, even when his plays are not so overtly subject-based as Racing Demon and the rest of the trilogy, his political passions are ingrained in everything he does. "The politics either doesn't get seen at all, or else it's only seen by the audience, not by the critics. The critics think, `Oh, it's one of David Hare's domestics', and put it into a category, which is infuriating. With Amy's View, they just didn't see the politics at all. It seemed perfectly clear to me that it's about the English inability to shake off the past, about how the English live in the past and ignore the inevitability of change."

He himself is getting, it seems, rather less English as time goes by. "I don't have a romantic relationship with the place," he says. "John Osborne, with whom I was great friends, and Lindsay Anderson, whom I was less close to, they both had a thing about Englishness. Lindsay ended up on the anarchist right, and John on the not-so-anarchist right, but both of them loved England in a very profound way. I must say, England has provided me with wonderful material. In many ways, it's been my subject. But the landscape doesn't make me weep. I don't look at an English hillside and get a tear in the eye. And now I'm married to a Frenchwoman, I feel more and more detached from it."

By the end of an hour, we have talked about a couple of dozen matters not entirely related to the stage: fox-hunting, lamb chops, the time Harold Pinter voted for Mrs Thatcher, Hare's children, lone parents, Geoffrey Robinson and things that should be banned forthwith ("It's incredibly predictable, I'm afraid, but I'd ban people walking down the street on mobile phones. That and the phrase `hard choices' ").

One leaves Mr Hare thinking, gosh, what a nice chap, and simultaneously feeling that you wouldn't like to be around when such a passionate moralist turns against you. There's a whiff of sulphur about him, even when he's at his most indulgent and most amused. He will never provide any easy comfort for any political party, any administration, anyone in public life. And when you ask this dangerous smiley artist, with a theatre in both his head and his living room, about his own future struttings on the public stage, you get a rare old mouthful: "Yes, it's true my friends from school and Cambridge are moving to positions of power in society. What is noticeable is that they never ask me to occupy any of those positions. I have never been approached by the government, by the Arts Council, by any cultural organisation, nobody has offered me any kind of honour, I've never been approached for advice, I'm not on the board of anything. And I'm very happy in that position. I think, as a writer, you should be one step back from all that. But nobody ever asks me anyway, and I take it as the highest compliment".