Interview: David Hayman, actor

Actor David Hayman
Actor David Hayman
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TWO weeks ago, David Hayman was in a Glasgow pub watching the Old Firm game with his sons.

A groan went round the press of Celtic fans as Rangers scored the first goal. Then a voice rang out from the back of the pub: “Oi! Lear! Whit ye gonna dae about that then?” “I said I’d have them all beheaded on Monday morning,” says Hayman, grinning. “I got a round of applause.”

Whether or not he makes a habit of watching Shakespeare, the Man in the Pub Watching the Old Firm Game knows that Hayman is doing King Lear at the Citizens Theatre. That’s an indication of the esteem in which both the man and the theatre are held on the streets of the city. “I’ve met so many people in the street who have said, ‘I’m coming to see your King Lear, son, I’ll be there for you,’ ” shaking his head. “It’s been terrific.”

His eyes sparkle when he talks about the Citz – “my favourite theatre in the whole world” – where his career began more than 40 years ago. Invited back to play Lear by the theatre’s new director, Dominic Hill, he didn’t need asking twice. “I stood on the stage three months back and goose bumps went up and down my spine, it was lovely.”

Wearing an old pair of jeans, with a beanie hat pulled down almost to his eyebrows, Hayman looks more wiry Glasgow hardman than ageing monarch. But the Lear posters focus on his face, lined and melancholy, with something inscrutable about the eyes. A spark. There’s fight in the old king yet.

At 64, Hayman gives much of his time to his charity Spirit Aid, which he founded in 2001 to help children around the world affected by war, poverty and abuse, and is now one of Scotland’s more successful aid organisations. In recent interviews, he has given the impression of disillusionment with acting, that he’d quit if he could to concentrate on humanitarian work.

But the David Hayman I meet is a man whose passion for theatre has been reignited. Last year, he appeared opposite Jude Law and Ruth Wilson in Eugene O’Neill’s three-hander Anna Christie at the Donmar, which may transfer to Broadway (“Which would be fab!”). He has done four plays in Òran Mór’s lunchtime series, including a one- man play, Six And A Tanner, which he toured around Scotland and will take to the Fringe in August.

“If I could spend nine months of the year doing my humanitarian work and three months doing the equivalent of King Lear, I’d be happy as a pig in shit,” says Hayman. “I love the craft, I love the job of acting. My wife always says, ‘David, you belong on stage, it’s your natural habitat.’ It certainly beats prancing around in front of a camera wearing an Armani suit.”

That’s a reference to DCS Mike Walker, the hard-bitten cop in the long-running Lynda La Plante series Trial & Retribution, which is still the part for which he is best known. “It’s industrial television, but I like to think it’s a bit more sophisticated.” But his eyes don’t light up the way they do when he talks about Lear. “I mean, it’s a five-act beast, you gird your loins and think: ‘OK, we’re going on a journey.’ It’s an extraordinary challenge.”

Hill’s production, with a strong cast of Scottish actors including Cal MacAninch and Kathryn Howden, is to be modern, drawing out the play’s resonances for a time of “economic recession and political disillusionment”. “It raises issues of social justice and the abuse of power and privilege,” says Hayman. “It’s an exploration of greed and consumerism, it’s about the haves and the have-nots. We’re seeing that now with the devastation in our country by the present Government. Lear sees the world through a pauper’s eyes and finds his humanity.”

Hayman is given to declaiming on the state of the world, but in his defence, he does know what he’s talking about. He is the hands-on driving force behind Spirit Aid, regularly to be found talking to village elders in remote parts of Afghanistan, buying knitting machines for women in Malawi or dispensing relief in the wake of disasters (he personally went to Sri Lanka with aid after the tsunami).

“I love being hands-on, it’s a really powerful reminder of the depths of poverty and desperation in this world. You read that some celebrity has bought their three-year-old son a Rolex watch and you think our moral compass has gone off beam. We respect money and greed and fame far more than we respect integrity and goodness.”

A keen traveller since the age of 15, he has “gone native” with indigenous cultures around the world. “I will bring my experience of all that to bear in Lear and hopefully it will be more potent because of that, rather than being played by someone who has lived in an ivory tower all his life. It’s a very visceral experience, you shit in a hole in the ground, and you eat with your right hand because you wipe your arse with your left. And yet I always come back having been taught lessons in basic humanity and compassion.”

He started Spirit Aid because he wanted to do a Scottish Live Aid at Hampden, but his rock stars let him down. “They were all, ‘Oh, man, I’m burned out,’ and I was thinking, ‘You’re sitting on your fat arse on your sofa with £40 million in the bank. Go and sit in a refugee camp in Afghanistan and tell me you’re burned out’. But I thought, I believe in this, I’ve got to keep going.”

It was a similar determination which took him into acting. Hayman was 16, an apprentice at a steelyard, when one day, instead of getting the bus back to Drumchapel, he walked up the steps of the RSAMD in his boiler suit and said he wanted to be an actor. After college, he went to the Citz “where I had my real education” under the triumvirate of directors, Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David McDonald.

At 20, he was on stage as a scantily clad Hamlet, then later as Lady Macbeth in an all-male production of the Scottish play. “We played with gender all the time at the Citz, we broke through the sexual taboos of the time. In a way we were all like rock stars. This was the time of David Bowie and Mick Jagger and we were the theatrical versions of them, that’s how we were directed, how we were staged, how we were costumed. They wanted these sexy, good-looking men and women on that stage, the sexuality was a big part of it. It was an extraordinary time, very vivid, very alive, it was a lifestyle as much as anything else.”

Shortly after leaving the Citizens, Hayman was cast as convict-turned-sculptor Jimmy Boyle in the biopic A Sense Of Freedom. That, perhaps, was the moment he might have courted Hollywood as Robert Carlyle (one of his many proteges) was able to do a generation later after playing hardman Begbie in Trainspotting. But Hayman preferred Glasgow, where he married Alice, a social worker, and mother of his three sons.

“I didn’t come into this industry to be a star,” he says, his tone of voice attacking the very idea. “I’ve never been attracted to Hollywood or stardom. I wanted to be a damn good actor and retain my privacy. I’ve seen these so-called big stars who never actually get to meet real people or have real experiences. No. Never been tempted.”

But he does have a distinguished film CV, including working with Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor Of Panama, Bruce Willis in The Jackal, Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth in Where The Truth Lies. “All actors, be they film stars or not, are just working actors. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who are on that level, and lots and lots of sympathy.”

He has also been acclaimed as a director, both in film (The Hawk starring Helen Mirren, and The Near Room, in which a young James McAvoy made his screen debut) and theatre. He directed plays in London for ten years but quit after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the sense that his audience were a privileged elite. Doing Six And A Tanner in village halls and prisons in Scotland felt like it had more integrity.

“I played ten performances in prisons last year, my smallest audience was 14 lifers in Shotts, and it was one of the most powerful experiences ever. Me on stage with a coffin and 14 men who’d committed serious crimes. It’s an honest response, it’s not considered. By the same token, they expect the same level of honesty and integrity in your performance. They will see through it if you try and con them.” «

King Lear is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, from 20 April until 12 May