Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Paul Higgins - Blackbird

Paul Higgins won't be able to make the Glasgow Film Festival screening of Couple in A Hole, the off-kilter thriller he appears in alongside Kate Dickie, and which has already garnered plaudits at festivals abroad. Instead, Higgins will be just across the river, performing in the Citizens' Theatre's new production of Blackbird. David Harrower's troubling dissection of the emotional fallout of an illicit relationship between twelve year old Una and forty year old Ray shows what happens when Una turns up unannounced fifteen years after Ray was sent to prison.

Higgins can also be heard shortly in a new radio adaptation of John Wyndham's ecological science-fiction novel, The Kraken Wakes, in which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes an unlikely cameo. All of which is in keeping with Higgins' back catalogue as an an actor unafraid to appear both vulnerable and ridiculous, as he did on TV in both The Thick of It and Dennis Kelly's graphic novel styled Utopia.

Onstage, Higgins has played Prospero and Macbeth in Shakespeare, Phil McCann in John Byrne's The Slab Boys, and took on the pivotal roles of the Writer and the Sergeant in the National Theatre of Scotland's era-defining production of Black Watch. The year after that he toured the Middle East with the Traverse in David Greig's play, Damascus.

The last time Higgins acted at the Citz he was the Earl of Kent in King Lear, and last year appeared at the Donmar alongside Simon Russell Beale and Anna Calder-Marshall in Temple, Steve Waters' play about the 2011 anti austerity protests. In a career that has seen him play a succession of intense loners, Blackbird is something else again.

“It's complicated,” says Higgins. “The writing of it is fractured and broken up. I don't normally learn lines before rehearsals start, but I don't think I could've coped doing that with this. I'd heard of the play, and I suppose I might've been sceptical about how good it could be, because I thought the subject matter I would say was unpromising, but then when I read it I was knocked out by it. When Una says to Ray that she wanted to rip out his eyes and stamp on them, where a bad version of this play would give you an hour and a half of that, this goes through to a much stranger and more interesting place.”

With Citizens acting intern Camrie Palmer playing opposite Higgins as Una in Gareth Nicholls' production, Blackbird has become increasingly pertinent since it was first seen during the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, and both a Broadway production and a film of the play are pending. While numerous productions have taken advantage of the play's economical cast of two as much as the taboo-busting power of the writing, numerous scandals involving assorted high-profile alleged predators have made for shifts in how the play is received.

“One of the things that appealed to me about the play is exactly what another person would say is dodgy about it” Higgins says, “because it is complicated, and it's murky, and it goes to places that you're not really allowed to go to politically. But then, it's not politics. It's art, and as a writer Harrower is allowed to go anywhere he wants, and in the play as well Una is looking at her responsibilities and desires. When she told the court that she wanted him, she's told that wasn't the case, and legally that's how it is, but for her it's much more complicated.”

The last time Higgins was at the Citizens was in his guise as a writer on The Choir, a brand new musical co-penned with Deacon Blue singer Ricky Ross.

“We had a great time,” Higgins says, “If we had a chance to do it again there are obviously things I'd change, but there was a lot I was proud of as well. It attracted a lot of people who don't normally go to the theatre because they think it's boring, so that was something.”

Since then, Higgins has filmed what what looks set to be a semi-regular role in the second series of Caitlin Moran's sit-com, Raised By Wolves. In The Kraken Wakes, in which Wyndham envisaged an alien race invading a flooded Britain from beneath the sea, Higgins appears opposite Tamsin Greig in a new version penned by crime novelist Val McDermid. With sound a key component, the two-part adaptation was recorded live with a new score by Professor E Williams performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and is set to be aired in March.

“That was pretty nerve-wracking,” Higgins admits, “because you've got a live audience in front of you, and a live orchestra behind you, and you're trying to time what you say to the music. The music represented the undersea creatures, and it was funny doing this story in January that was about Britain being flooded, because you'd turn on the telly and Britain really was flooded.”

And Nicola Sturgeon's role?

“I think the novel ends in Cornwall or somewhere, but Val McDermid has it finish in Scotland,” Higgins reveals. “There's chaos in London, there's no police force, and the British government has collapsed, but it's the Scottish government that survives and tries to re-establish civic order. So mine and Tamsin's characters are always twiddling with the radio, trying to get a signal, and they hear Nicola Sturgeon saying the Scottish Government is going to take control.

An easy ask, by the sound of it, for any First Minister. Less easy, perhaps, is Couple in A Hole, in which Higgins and Dickie play a middle class Scottish couple living in a hole in the Pyrenees.

“They think no-one knows they're there,” Higgins explains, “and it shows what happens when one of them starts to interact with the world in ways they shouldn't. You don't know why they're there, but you know something bad's happened. “

Just how bad he isn't saying, but Higgins admits that he thought the film might bomb.

“I thought it might be too strange for people to get a handle on,” he says, “but people have loved it so far, and it's getting a general release.”

Blackbird too isn't obvious mainstream fare, but, like Couple in A Hole, has tapped into something eminently truthful in terms of the games people play with each other.

“We had a professional counsellor read the play,” says Higgins, “and she said it's a fantastically accurate picture of a certain kind of relationship, and it's one we don't really hear about. We have black and white opinions about these events, and in a sense legally they are black and white, but you get an understanding of how complicated such relationships can be.

“It gives you an insight into a situation that you wouldn't otherwise have, and some kind of empathy with characters who otherwise you might feel were alien to you. We like to feel like someone like Ray has nothing to do with us, and that we don't have to think about people like him, but the play makes you think. On the rare occasions when I'm invited to think about things in the theatre like this, I like it.”

Blackbird, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 25-March 5. Couple in A Hole is screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival at Glasgow Film Theatre, February 25, 6pm and February 26 at 10.45am. The Kraken Wakes will be broadcast in March.
www.citz.co.uk
www.glasgowfilm.org/festival
www.bbc.co.uk

The Herald, February 24th 2016

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