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Clare Higgins On … Being a Greek Drama Queen

Actress Clare Higgins stars opposite Ralph Fiennes in Jonathan Kent’s National Theatre production of Oedipus, just opened in the NT Olivier. No stranger to Greek tragedy, in 2004, Higgins tackled Hecuba – which won her one of her three Oliviers to date – for Kent at the Donmar Warehouse, where she also starred in Phaedra two years ago. She won her other two Oliviers for Vincent in Brixton (at the National, ahead of Broadway and the West End) and Sweet Bird of Youth. Her many other non-Greek stage credits include Major Barbara, Death of a Salesman, The Night of the Iguana, Heartbreak House, Present Laughter, The Seagull and A Letter of Resignation.

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“Tragedy makes me roar with laughter, that’s the main thing,” exclaims Clare Higgins, the actress who proudly proclaims she was always the black sheep in her Yorkshire family, expelled from her convent school before hitting the hippie trail in Amsterdam. As Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother, domestic responsibility has caught up with her at last.

When cast as Jocasta, she had a light-hearted money discussion at the National Theatre: she was being asked to play wife and girlfriend, not to mention mother, so she was on triple duty. Any chance that the scale of this terrible task might be reflected in the contract?

No go, said the accounts department: they knew full well that Clare was playing a role of choice in her career, an obvious Greek tragedy development of her enslaved, child-bereft queen Hecuba, hatching vile vengeance, at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004 and her hallucinatory, incestuous Phaedra at the same address in 2006.

A pattern emerges: Euripides, Racine and Sophocles, all translated by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. Higgins is of Irish working-class extraction in Leeds, and seems to specialise in women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “Frank has a gift with the Greek mind, allowing me to lose mine: there’s absolutely no preamble, and his text is very dense and compact.”

There are other important motors in the expressive engine of this unrivalled tragedy queen. At the age of 18, she gave up her son for adoption – and found him again when he was 21. “It was a real Oedipus moment when I met him in my own house. He’s exactly like me. He works in computers. I don’t know anything about his father, really.”

And, ten years ago, this dynamic triple Olivier Award winner trained as a psychotherapist. “I wanted to change the work I did, but after I trained I realised I could have both a stage and a secular life. It’s helped me in these big dramatic roles, no question. And Hecuba was easily the most demanding of them all.

“It’s the journey you take with the audience that’s so extraordinary in these plays. You engage in this massive wave of tragedy and emotion, and it’s one of the real joys in my life. Phaedra experienced the tragedy descending on her, whereas poor old Jocasta in Oedipus is caught in a trap – she simply didn’t know was waiting for her.”

- Clare Higgins was speaking to Michael Coveney

Oedipus opened on 15 October 2008 (previews from 8 October) at the National Theatre, where it runs in rep in the NT Olivier until 4 January 2009 before embarking on an international tour. A version of this interview appears in the current October issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!

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