Joyce McMillan: Paul Higgins' daring new role in Blackbird

When David Harrower's play Blackbird first appeared, at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, it caused something of a sensation.

Paul Higgins at the Citizens Theatre
Paul Higgins at the Citizens Theatre

Directed in controversial style by the legendary German director Peter Stein, it was a memorably bold and sensitive study of one of the most difficult subjects in contemporary drama; in a single 90-minute scene, Blackbird imagines a meeting, 15 years on, between Ray, a man now in his 50s, and Una, the woman with whom he had a sexually abusive relationship when she was a 12-year-old girl.

So when the actor and playwright Paul Higgins decided to take on the role of Ray in this spring’s Citizens’ Theatre production, he was aware of stepping into a hugely controversial emotional minefield; although also of accepting the kind of challenge he loves, as a screen and stage actor, and as a writer. “It’s a very brave, bold play,” says Higgins, “and although I’ve never seen it performed, I knew as soon as I read it that I really wanted to play this part.

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“I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed learning lines so much – the quality of David Harrower’s writing is just astonishing. And I’m struck by the way in which prison really seems to have worked for Ray; he’s paid the price for his crime, he’s thought it through, he’s been given the chance to start a new life. Whereas Una remains completely trapped by what happened 15 years ago. Essentially, she just doesn’t know what she wants the past to have been; and I think Camrie Palmer, the Citizens’ intern who’s playing Una, is going to make a great job of capturing that.”

Stage roles like this one, though, form only part of Higgins’s increasingly successful multi-stranded career. Born in Wishaw in 1963, he gave up the idea of becoming a priest in his late teens, went to drama school in London, and began to develop an impressive carreer as an actor, which led to appearances with the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court, among many other companies, and also – most famously – as press officer Jamie McDonald in the BBC political satire The Thick Of It.

This spring sees the release – after a Glasgow Film Festival screening – of Higgins’s latest film Couple In A Hole, in which he and Kate Dickie play a couple who, after an unnamed catastrophe, are living wild in a Pyrenean forest. And a dozen years ago, as he turned 40, Higgins also began to write his own plays; his dark family comedy Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us premiered at the Traverse in 2008, and last year, with musician Ricky Ross, he co-wrote the Citizens’ show The Choir, about a memorably mixed group of people coming together in a Lanarkshire town to try sing out their longings, dreams and frustrations.

“I don’t know whether people take me more seriously as an actor now that I’m also a playwright,” says Higgins. “I was always interested in dramatic shape and structure even before I started writing, although people perhaps listen a bit more carefully now, when I talk about it. I do have some new ideas for plays coming up, including one on a very difficult subject indeed; as for the acting, I have no idea what’s coming next, although I’m glad I don’t have to rely for a living on what you can earn writing plays.

“As I get older, though, I increasingly love the feeling of getting to know 
a great text, learning it, and having the technical skill to completely master it. And Blackbird is definitely a text like that. On the page, it looks like poetry, and it has that strength to it; but it’s also completely natural and speakable, and that combination makes working on it an absolute 

• Blackbird is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 25 February until 5 March; Couple In A Hole is at the Glasgow Film Festival, 25 February, and on general release from 8 April.