David Hare: ‘I’ll always be a political playwright’

Ahead of his talk at Keats Library, Sir David Hare talks to Alex Bellotti about theatre, success and how technology is changing art.

If five set designers had to come up with a vision of the perfect writer’s studio, it would probably still pale in comparison to Sir David Hare’s. With solid oak furnishings, dauntingly packed bookshelves and a mezzanine plastered with posters of his most famous works, it provides the secluded, silent environment he needs to work, boasting a frame like a chapel and the impossibly tall walls to match.

“High ceilings are good for writers,” he later says, and it’s the sort of phrase that could easily describe the ethos behind one of his plays. For, having worked in British theatre for over forty years, it’s fair to say that Hare – alongside contemporaries like Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn – has pushed the boundaries of what theatre can achieve; and its ability to not just entertain, but inform.

On the surface, the man is a contradiction. A champion of the underdog – the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised – he has won global acclaim through shows such as Plenty, Skylight and, most recently, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, yet here he is with two properties in Hampstead, surrounding himself with the sort of wealth his plays often lambast.

Passionate, eloquent and disarmingly honest, Hare quickly makes light of such juxtapositions.

“The only thing that I do is have a deep curiosity in subject matter and I’m always trying to expand the subject matter available in the theatre,” he explains.

“If the argument is that you should be disqualified from doing this because you don’t live in a slum yourself, then you go into a sort of madness where the human imagination is of absolutely no value whatsoever.

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“Secondly, I would say, ‘Well who else is doing this job?’ If I don’t do it and people likeminded to me don’t do it, nobody’s going to and no reporting of anything except the minor adulteries of the middle class in London is going to appear on the British stage.”

In truth it’s hard to begrudge Hare, of all people, the fruits of his labour. Alongside writing plays that bring the turmoil of the Indian slums, the Chinese revolution, the Iraq War and the financial crash to the national stage, the two-time Olivier Award winner and Oscar nominee (for his screen adaptations of 2002’s The Hours and 2008’s The Reader) is an active local resident. His first play, Slag, even debuted at Hampstead Theatre back in 1970, before he moved to the area with his second wife, fashion designer Nicole Farhi.

Recently he has been championing Hampstead’s “absolutely heroic” Keats Community Library and he will be appearing there on February 12 to talk about his life and career as one of our most accomplished playwrights.

The library’s defiant protection of books, he says, mirrors his own experience with theatre, which for a long while was also considered an endangered species.

“Crudely, at the moment, people are predicting the end of the book, the end of the magazine and the end of the newspaper. I personally don’t think any of these things are going to happen and I’m not a Luddite, I’m not romantically attached to them and saying, ‘Oh all these Kindles and stuff are horrible, nasty and modern.’

“I’m just absolutely convinced that magazines and books will come back. We in the theatre have been through this. When television, film and video took hold, everybody said, ‘It’s going to be the end of theatre, the live experience isn’t going to matter anymore.’ Well guess what’s happened, the exact opposite – theatre has come charging back. Why? By its very contrast to the more modern means of communication.”

That’s not to say Hare is averse to technological advances in theatre. With almost childlike glee, he talks of how in Behind the Beautiful Forevers light and shadow are used with such subtlety that it’s not even clear which designs are a physical part of the set.

The show is a fantastically affecting production, to both the credit of Hare and the National Theatre’s director in waiting, Rufus Norris. Based on a book by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo, who spent three years alongside a group of families in Mumbai’s Anawadi slums, it portrays an India where rising economic prospects have brought both opportunity and more trouble.

In its tender personal stories, what is most striking is that Hare – even now as one of theatre’s most established figures – is still treading new, challenging ground. Unlike many artists, he’s never shirked the tag of ‘political playwright’, so I ask if he’d still happily own as one now.

“Yes of course. But what I mean by this is that the most important question to me about any work of art is ‘What is it saying?’ And that is, I’m afraid, a political view. That is not the most important question for many people – for many people the most important question is ‘Is it beautiful’ or ‘To what level is it achieved?’”

So even a ‘relationship’ play like Skylight – Hare’s 1995 show which recently floored critics in a National Theatre revival with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy – is a political work?

“Oh yeah, totally,” he says, pointing to how a speech in the second act about ignorant critiques of social work was met last year with rapturous applause. “Not just in the theatre, but people who went to the cinema transmission all over the country wrote to me and said, ‘At last, I heard somebody say what I have longed to hear said in public for the last 20 years, when I first wrote the play.’

“Given that that feeling is so rarely expressed in public – it’s certainly never expressed in our press or televisions – to hear it expressed in the theatre, well that’s what theatre’s for: to tell everybody what is going on that they don’t know about.”

Whether it’s good or bad, Hare is never short of feedback. Intriguingly, he says that he always can tell the “destiny” of his latest play by sitting in the audience of the first preview. “You know that certain kind of silence comes down when you are on the nail with subject matter and with the way the subject matter is treated. When that happens, it’s very exciting; when it doesn’t happen, it’s very, very, very disturbing and upsetting and I’ve sat through an awful lot of evenings at my plays when that hasn’t happened.”

I wonder if he has now become ‘disastrously influential’ (a term he once used in reference to the oversaturation of two handers that occured in the wake of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) and he laughs, admitting it does become uncomfortable when people tell him they left their partners or jobs after seeing one of his plays: “I never quite take it as a complement because I think, ‘Oh my god, has it made you happier or unhappier?’”

Can theatre have a similar effect on wider society? “If only is all I could say. We got a letter from George Osborne saying how deeply moved he was by Skylight, so one of the actors said to me ‘Well, shall we write back to him and say we very much look forward to the skylight budget?’”

While that sounds a lot like a Bill Nighy line, it’s the sort of quip that could sum up Hare himself. A man bold enough to bark questions at the highest powers, but a writer skilled enough to draw answers from the sound of silence.

David Hare: Putting Words In Their Mouth takes place at Keats Community Library on February 12. Tickets £8. Visit keatscommunitylibrary.org.uk