Greg Hicks doesn’t so much walk into a room as slink. The black polo neck he’s wearing accentuates his feline qualities as he pads into The Citizens Theatre’s foyer, eyeing up the territory as he bites into an apple with slow determination, eyes flickering curiously onto its core at what dangerous knowledge might be contained within the next bite.
As entrances go, it’s poised enough to suggest a man used to holding court. That this most singular actor’s back catalogue of theatrical statesman has included Coriolanus, Tamburlaine and Macbeth confirms this. Now, though, Hicks is flexing his muscles to play an even nastier character in a major revival of Tony Kushner’s mammoth two part epic, Angels In America.
In a play that charts the rise of AIDS in 1980s New York that defined an era when it premiered in 1992, Hicks plays notorious lawyer Roy Cohn. Cohn came to prominence during the McCarthyite anti-Communist purges in the 1950s before becoming a top flight attorney and conservative associate of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Kushner’s portrayal of Cohn, who died of AIDS in 1984, is that of a self-serving hypocrite with few redeeming features. Getting the measure of Cohn’s monstrous personality without slipping into pantomime parody is a challenge Hicks is squaring up to in this major co-production between The Citz, Headlong Theatre and The Lyric Hammersmith with typical sound and fury.
“The audience hated him,” Hicks says a few days after last week’s previews of Part One. “He comes in and out with this extraordinary elegant bile, and is a man who is totally false to who he really is. ‘I am not a homosexual’, he says over and over again. It’s wonderful to play someone so quintessentially and brilliantly dark, but I haven’t quite got the measure of him yet. I haven’t opened up the charm box enough.”
Given Cohn’s history, charm isn’t an attribute that immediately springs to mind.
“Everybody knew he was corrupt,” Hicks says, but he clearly had a brilliant skill, partly because he was so ruthless, but also because he was very driven to do what his father did. His father was a judge.”
Fathers’ influence on their sons’ work is something Hicks recognises first hand, as he’ll make clear later. In terms of Angels In America, though, “The last sort of dark character I played like that was Macbeth, but Macbeth has some self-knowledge about what he's doing, which is what drives him so completely mad. Roy Cohn simply doesn't have that. Not in the way Kushner's written him anyway. He is what he is, and he won't admit a fundamental truth about himself. There's a toxicity to this part. I've played lots of difficult people - Coriolanus, Tamburlaine, Macbeth - all three of whom are very difficult men. But this guy is irredeemably dark. Clearly Kushner felt he was a monster. But then writers love monsters.”
As Hicks has already observed, he’s well-known for being cast as troubled tyrants. These are usually men to be found venting their spleen in the classical canon, so even the idea of seeing Hicks in a contemporary play, however poetic and fantastical, feels like a departure in itself.
“The trouble is with playing those characters,” says Hicks, “is that there are very few glimpses of real vulnerability. There are still huge doors that open to psychological vulnerability and complexity. Which really, to be quite honest with you, only happens in glimpses in this.”
Hicks first made a name for himself at The Citz in 1990 when he stepped in as last-minute replacement for Richard Harris in Enrico 1V, Pirandello’s play about a mad-man who believes himself to be king. Hicks returned several times as part of Prowse’s loose-knit ensemble in typically flamboyant productions of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore through to Craig Raine’s verse play, 1953.
You can see why Hicks’ sense of physical self-possession would fit in with Prowse’s visually European approach. Hicks was practicing Yoga long before the current vogue for more muscular accompaniments to the great speeches. He also practices Capoeira, a Brazilian dance form he calls “my passion” and has used Japanese Butoh techniques into performances.
“What I’m interested in,” he says, “is a style of acting that’s not from the neck upwards. It’s actually more personal than that. It’s not that I want to have physical theatre. It’s actually just the way I am as a person.”
Hicks’ individual approach has singled him out ever since he joined The Royal Shakespeare Company after a stint at drama school that put strains on his relationship with a father who’d put him through an expensive education in Rutland. It was here he first caught the acting bug after a millionaire ex student funded the building of a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. An enlightened English teacher cast the young Hicks in Twelfth night, and “I never quite got over it. I knew I’d come home. I knew that’s what I really ought to be doing. I was going to try and be a lawyer or an accountant or a Corporal or something, but I knew this was what I should be doing.”
Hick’s father, a self-made market trader from London’s east end who moved to Leicester after flying Lancaster bombers, was mortified.
“It wasn’t really what he wanted me to do,” says Hicks. “He didn’t see acting as a proper job. He thought it was a bit namby. It’s like something George C Scott said, that acting isn’t a job for a grown man. That was my Dad, and out of the 30 years I’ve been doing this, it took 20 of those years for him to really come to terms with the fact that that was what I’d chosen to do. It meant a lot to me, that turnaround, actually. Because for many years it was very painful. I felt I’d let him down. Now, he’s my staunchest ally, and somewhat fiercest critic. He gives me marks out of ten sometimes. He’s 96, my Dad, and he’s sharp. ‘Too much acting, Son’ he’ll say. ‘Be more natural.’ He became like a sort of boxing manager, my Dad.”
Enrico 1V was major turning point for both men. Only then did Hicks senior finally realise his boy was onto something. Hicks junior too, took a leap from his seven years at the RSC, four at the National Theatre and other work with major directors.
“The Citz was catalystic for a major gear shift in my career,” he says. “Up until that point I’d done very well. But something happened to me here in this building. There was a maverick, expansive quality under Phillip’s wing, that really let me fly into some other area. I lived more dangerously as an actor, and I think people saw me in a slightly different light. I was crazy. My talent was let out a bit. I would say 1990 was a very significant moment in my working life, really. Since then, it’s just piled one thing on top of another, really.”
Angels In America is a kind of homecoming for Hicks, who these days stays young via work with a new generation of younger directors, including David Farr, and, for Angels In America, Daniel Kramer.
“If I believe in something,” Hicks says, “I’ll throw myself into it completely, and I very much believe in this man. I’ve been very lucky, meeting and working with the people I have. Here I am at 53, working with Daniel, who’s not yet 30, and it’s just great, it’s like, I should be so lucky. Because there’s something Greek going on in Angels In America. You can feel it,” he says, wolfing down the last of his apple. “It’s cosmic.”
Angels In America, Part One, Millennium Approaches, May 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12; Part Two, Perestroika, May 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
The Herald, May 1st 2007