Don’t let his title and designer wife fool you: Sir David Hare wasn’t always the labelled-up, Oscar-nominated pillar of the establishment he is today.
It would take a stronger will than mine to resist commenting on David Hare’s shoes.
They are like a schoolboy’s: scuffed, boot-shaped and an unappealing shade of rust-brown. What is extraordinary about them is their ordinariness, that and the way they go with his dark, finely tailored Nicole Farhi suit – which is about as well as ketchup goes with caviar. I point this discrepancy out to him. He looks at the shoes and nods. ‘Yes, they are bad.’
Well, bad for him maybe, but not for an interviewer on the lookout for a cheap metaphor. As a 21-year-old, you see, Hare was angry, angry, angry. He wrote and performed angry agitprop plays. He toured the provinces in a van, exposing unsuspecting, theatreless towns to angry, left-wing ‘street’ theatre. He was, clearly, going through an angry, scuffed-shoes phase. Now, at the age of 58, he is Sir David Hare, the pillar of the New Establishment, the dramatist whose name has become synonymous with the National Theatre, the man who – yes – married Nicole Farhi. He’s no longer angry, it seems, just a bit peeved. And the shoes surely represent a residual, nostalgic flicker of subversion on his part.
‘The managing director of Nicole’s company once had a quiet word with me about my terrible suits,’ he tells me. ‘After that I have always worn Nicole Farhi. I don’t think he said anything about my shoes.’
I ask whether, as an idealistic, red-flag-waving youth, Hare ever imagined he would one day be married to that embodiment of capitalism, an international fashion designer.
‘Fashion designers can be idealistic,’ he counters, not unreasonably. ‘Nicole is one of the most idealistic people I know.’
They live in Hampstead, Farhi and Hare. They also work there, though from different addresses. I am talking to Sir David in what he calls his ‘studio’: an airy, two-storey house where he does his writing. On the walls are framed posters of the films for which he has written screenplays, most notably The Hours, for which he was Oscar-nominated. On the shelves there are editions of the 25-odd stage plays he has written over the decades: from Plenty in the 1970s, to Pravda in the 1980s, to his ‘state of the nation’ trilogy in the 1990s (Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War), and to his deftly handled play about the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, in 2004.
On his desk there is a proof copy of his latest work: Obedience, Struggle & Revolt, a collection of his occasional lectures. They cover pet themes of his, such as the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, the privatisation of the railways and the ‘hysterical self-righteousness’ of the British press. The most autobiographical of the lectures concerns his time reading English at Cambridge. He was taught there by the Marxist critic Raymond Williams, but only after threatening a strike when Williams tried to farm his students out to other tutors.
As an 18-year-old, you suspect, Hare was more serious-minded than his peers; less fun, too. What advice would he give that angry young man if he met him now?
‘I wouldn’t give him any advice because I would just find him so ridiculous. That is what I argue about the 1960s: ridiculousness was in the air. The hippy movement was self-satirising. People smoked marijuana for fun, not for great insight.’ He rakes a hand through his neatly side-parted hair; his tonsure is not visible from the front and this recurring, nervy gesture seems designed to keep it that way.
‘I was useless with drugs and didn’t enjoy them,’ he continues. ‘Any drug I tried didn’t suit me. I spent so many evenings trying to bring people down from bad trips. A very boring way to spend your life. I was always more work-orientated.’
It sounds as if he was more a square than a hippy, I suggest. Does he look back on his youth and wish he had been more frivolous? ‘No, not in the slightest. But I was impatient at Cambridge – keen to leave and start up my own theatre company. It was partly because I had had a taste of frivolity before going to university. I had spent some time in Los Angeles as a 17-year-old and in those days the West Coast of America seemed very exotic: the surfboards, the music, the girls who cut their jeans off round their thighs. Cambridge seemed grey and cold by comparison and this put me in a bad temper from which I never quite managed to recover.’
David Hare and his elder sister grew up in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex. Their father was a purser with P&O. Hare was, he says, educated out of his class.
‘I had this “off” accent – a bit Bexhilly – and I was ridiculed for it at school, so I changed it. I can still spot class fakery in others.’ But he was a public-school boy for all that, a head boy at Lancing no less. Did he later feel embarrassed about this bourgeois background, when he became a committed socialist?
‘I wasn’t really a committed socialist,’ he replies. ‘This is a misrepresentation.’ Is it the ‘committed’ or the ‘socialist’ he objects to? ‘What I’m saying is that I was never a Marxist and that set me apart from many people in my generation. I thought it unlikely that revolutionary change was going to come from the urban proletariat. It didn’t seem to me to be the way history was heading. That made me isolated. At the end of the 1970s I came under a ferocious attack from the orthodox left because I no longer considered that art should be pursued solely for political ends. That was painful for me, that attack. I still find it painful to think about now.’
He may have rejected agitprop theatre, but that didn’t mean he stopped being a political dramatist. As a playwright, indeed, according to the theatre critic Michael Billington, Hare came to view his native land with a mixture of critical exasperation and baffled affection: ‘He became one of those writers who feels constantly obliged to take Britain’s moral temperature.’
He also became known as a playwright who did his homework. For The Absence of War, for example, he talked Neil Kinnock into allowing him behind the scenes of Labour’s 1992 general-election campaign. He then exposed the leader’s faults in such a forensic way that Tony Blair declared that for years after seeing the play he felt haunted by its unerring accuracy. The admiration was mutual. Once asked what he thought of Blair, Hare said, ‘I think he’s me. I think he’s us. I think he’s like all the well-meaning, good people I know.’ Judging by Stuff Happens, he doesn’t think that any more. In fact he seems to be utterly disillusioned with Blair.
‘I wasn’t at the Festival Hall on the night of the 1997 Labour victory,’ Hare says when I put this to him. ‘I never thought Blair would be the second coming, so I was never illusioned.’
Actually, Blair does not come out of Stuff Happens as badly as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. But wasn’t it risky rushing to judgement about the war in Iraq? After all, in five years’ time democracy and peace could well have spread across the Middle East as a result of it.
‘Critics always say nothing dates faster than the up-to-date, and I don’t think that’s true. Some of the most exciting writing of the 20th century is in immediate response to events, Brecht and Orwell being obvious examples. I don’t think I will change my mind about the war. I just don’t believe the overthrow of Saddam had to involve 80, 90, 100,000 civilian deaths. I don’t think I’ll ever believe that was necessary.’
Stuff Happens was critically acclaimed, not least because many felt it marked a revival of political theatre as a genre. Even so, does Hare fear that, ultimately, because of its limited audiences, theatre is doomed to irrelevance, compared to, say, television? ‘No, audience sizes aren’t everything.’
What about as a force for changing society? Does he ever worry that his time might have been better spent in direct action, manning the barricades, as it were? ‘Completely. Of course. It has been a lifetime of failure, but it doesn’t feel as if it has been a lifetime of waste.’ Failure? ‘Because the theatre hasn’t changed and society hasn’t changed.’
What about Hollywood? Surely he doesn’t regard himself as having been a failure there?
‘The cinema broke my heart,’ he says. ‘For years I made a lot of films that no one went to. I didn’t expect The Hours to be the mainstream success it was, not least because it was a serious film about suicide. In fact, I was committed to working on The Permanent Way when The Hours came out. I kept being approached with offers from Hollywood producers and would say to them, “Sorry, I can’t. I’m working on a play about the privatisation of British Rail.” They would look at me as if I were off my head.’
It could be, of course, that Hare is just overly sensitive, as he admitted in Acting Up, a diary published in 1999. It covered a year he spent trying his hand as an actor. Upon receiving a lukewarm response from one audience he wrote, ‘Oh damn and f- showbusiness and all its ways.’ He realised as he wrote that diary that he had come to acting with no defence mechanisms, that is, with none of the abilities to bury and repress feelings which other actors have. The result is a searingly honest hand-wring in which he portrays himself as a cruel, vain, miserable, self-obsessed, paranoid, bitter hypochondriac. Did he like what he learnt about himself when writing that diary?
‘The whole venture was probably misjudged. I wanted to tell people what acting felt like if you were, as Simon Callow put it, “unprotected by a shield of technique”. And it felt vulnerable-making. I’d never do it again. That book was a complete failure. Maybe I was naive but I really wanted to explain the theatre to people like yourself who weren’t a part of it. I guess it sold entirely to the acting profession. I meant it for the layman and totally failed to reach them. I think Michael Simkins’s book [What’s My Motivation?] was much more successful in that respect.’
It was certainly more humorous, and it strikes me that a degree of humourlessness, or rather earnestness, seems to define Hare and his work. He is affable in person, and endearingly insecure about his rep-utation, but you begin to notice after a while that, though he smiles readily enough, his smiles don’t necessarily signify amusement. They are, rather, a compensation – the learnt response of one who is conscious of his own overbearing seriousness.
I ask Hare whether he thinks a more developed sense of humour might have helped him cope better as an actor. ‘My standing on stage essentially for the first time at the age of 50 made me feel fantastically vulnerable,’ he says. ‘So if you ask me did I have a sense of humour about it, I would have to say no.’
Why does he take things so personally? ‘Do you know a writer who doesn’t?’ Some writers invent a persona to hide behind, I point out.
‘Look, play-writing is a very wearing profession,’ he responds. ‘The previous generation of David Mercer, John Osborne and Dennis Potter were all tempestuously difficult people because the business of exposing yourself to public approval and disapproval is wearing. John Osborne said to me before he died that it would have made no difference if he had never lived. I knew Tennessee Williams quite well at the end of his life and his dominant topic of conversation would be the rejection of his work by the public at large. You never spent a night with him when he wouldn’t talk about the critics and the decline of his reputation.’ He shakes his head. ‘The evenings he wasted in despair at his neglect.’
But isn’t such gloominess a crucial part of the creative process? ‘It isn’t the case that if you are going through a great deal of suffering, you will write well, or if you are happy, you will write badly.’ Smile. ‘But yes, I do think grievance is fundamental to a playwright.’
Is he happy at the moment? ‘In my personal life, yes. Because I am very happily married. My life with my wife and children is completely wonderful. Am I happy about my writing? Of course not.’
It doesn’t sound like Hare gets much pleasure from it; is it masochism that keeps him going? ‘I enjoy the craft of writing. I love the company of actors. I love working alongside them. That is the chief pleasure of it. After Stuff Happens opened in Los Angeles recently I felt a threehour high in which I could not have felt more fulfilled. The anxiety re-descended upon my return to England.’
He is happier now than he was when he was a child, he adds. His unhappiness then was linked to the absence of his father, who was always away at sea. ‘We didn’t have a relationship to speak of. He was a frivolous man who would roll in very sun-tanned from Hawaii or wherever, take the elastic band off a thick roll of cash, hand some over to my mother and then disappear again. He was not a presence in my life. I wanted his love and approval and he was never there to give it to me.’
Was his father living a double life? ‘He was living more than one life, I now know.’ Another woman? Pause. A nod. ‘I only learnt about it after my father died and my mother got Alzheimer’s. She became delusive about events in her life which I didn’t understand. I had to ask people what she was on about, then everything fell into place.’
In terms of character, did he consciously strive to be the opposite of his father?
‘Yes. I have taken fatherhood very seriously and would never treat my children like he treated us. Perhaps I overcompensate for his coldness.’ Hare and his first wife Margaret had three children together who are now in their late twenties. When I ask what effect the break-up of his first marriage had on his children he says, ‘They coped fantastically well. I’m not sure I did. Those years were fantastically difficult. As difficult for Margaret as they were for me.’
Did he ever think he would find happiness in a relationship again? ‘No, I had given up. It was a complete fluke. The chances of my walking into a room and meeting someone with whom I felt an instant connection seemed so remote. But that was what happened, and when it did, I thought, “Now I see. This is it.”‘ He and Farhi married in 1992.
Hare admits that his ‘rootless youth’ was characterised by ‘a certain self-dislike’. Does he like himself more now? ‘It becomes irrelevant. It’s what you’re stuck with. Self-hatred was my propeller for so long and, in a way, it is a useless emotion. I guess I am driven, but by what I have never cared to analyse. It’s true that I wanted to find a warmth in my life that it seemed to lack when I was young and, essentially, I have found that warmth with Nicole.’
So all that angst and insecurity, all that youthful anger, may simply have been a matter of his needing to feel loved?
He laughs joylessly. ‘Do you think so?’