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James Harkness - The Absence of War

When James Harkness utters his opening lines in the Headlong company's revival of David Hare's play, The Absence of War which arrives at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, he will mean every single word he says. This is how it should be for any actor, of course, but for Gorbals-born Harkness, the words 'I love this moment', as spoken by the minder for would-be Labour Prime Minister George Jones, will have extra resonance.

It was on the Citizens Theatre stage where Harkness first stepped onto as a teenage member of the community-based Citizens Young Company between 2007 and 2009. It was from this that Harkness appeared in the company's contributions to the National Theatre Connections season of plays performed by young people as part of the initiative's Theatre of Debate season.

It was here that Harkness was spotted by Anthony Banks, the NT's associate director of learning, who mentored Harkness while preparing for the drama school auditions he'd now decided to take on. From this connection, Harkness was sponsored by an anonymous donor, who supported the young Glaswegian throughout the duration of his studies in London. This alone is testament to how participation at a grassroots level can change levels. The fact that Harkness is returning home in a significant revival of one of the most important plays from the last decade of the twentieth century by a writer such as David Hare takes things to another level.

“It's hard to put into words,” says Harkness, walking down a Bristol street close to the theatre where The Absence of War has stopped off prior to its Scottish dates. “I grew up in that building, so to come back to it like this, and to have come full circle, and for my friends and family to be able to see me, it's made my year. Honestly, I could die of happiness. I can't wait to get up there.”

Appearing in the play itself is something Harkness admits has been “a challenge. It's hard to get your head round the language sometimes, but David's such a brilliant writer, and Jeremy Herrin who's directing it is such a great director that they make it easier for you to get a grip of.”

It could have all been so different for Harkness, who, prior to becoming an actor, drifted through a series of jobs, either cheffing or else working with his Uncle Arthur in a garage. Outside of another community theatre group and a Scottish Youth Theatre course, this experience too gave Harkness a focus.

“He taught me so much,” he says of his uncle. “He taught me you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I could do everything except electrics.”

Harkness laughs long and hard when he says this, as he does with most things. There's an unbridled energy and boyish enthusiasm in every word he says which has clearly found a natural outlet onstage. Again, things could have worked out differently if he'd continued to apply that energy elsewhere.

The change for Harkness came when he woke up in a hospital bed after what he describes as “a horrible fight,” which took place in an elevator and involved an axe. “I just thought about things and knew I had to stop messing about. I had a real problem with authority and giving respect to people who didn't deserve respect.

“I grew up in a very colourful area,” he goes on. “I love the Gorbals, but I never really got to grips with anything, but once I got involved with the Citizens it felt like home. Ever since I did the SYT course there, I was in and out of that building since I was a wee boy. The Gorbals is a brilliant area, but it needs a lot more things like that, where you can get to know people and find some kind of common ground.”

Harkins is full of praise for Neil Packham, Guy Hollands and others at the Citz, as well as those who run other community groups.

“They showed me where I could go and gave me focus,” he says, then pauses.

“There were hunners' of women there as well who were all beautiful,” he laughs.

Harkins took an HNC in drama at Reid Kerr College in Paisley before choosing to train as an actor at LAMDA in London rather than Glasgow, where he thought there might be too many distractions. As it was, Harkins “grew up again in that building. Coming from the Gorbals I'm not used to dancing and singing, and first year was tough. I had to get used to people, but LAMDA were brilliant, and let me do things in my own time.”

Now aged twenty-six, since leaving LAMDA, Harkness has already appeared with the National Theatre and on the West End, as well as several films and a couple of episodes of Silent Witness. He will soon be seen as Angus in a new film of Macbeth featuring Michael Fassbender in the title role. The first scene Harkness filmed was with Paddy Considine who plays Banquo.

“Angus is brilliant,” says Harkness of the young nobleman fighting Macbeth. “He's someone who's worked hard to be where he wants to be, and people can say what they like about where he comes from, but they can't think he's a toerag.”

If Harkness hadn't become an actor, he isn't sure where he would have ended up.

“I was on a downward spiral before I got into acting, so who knows?” he admits. “But where I am now, I appreciate every moment. I've never been happier in any other job.”

The Absence of War, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 31-April 4
www.citz.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 24th 2015

ends

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