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Clare Higgins- one of the busiest stage actors currently working

Philip Fisher meets the National Theatre regular who is currently playing in All's Well

It is no coincidence that Clare Higgins is one of the busiest stage actors currently working. She is amongst the very best around and loves to take on a wide variety of new challenges, which ensures that she is always in demand.

In the last year, she has become a regular at the National in everything from Pinter to Greek tragedy, most recently playing the Countess of Rossillion in All's Well That Ends Well, as well as making a solo appearance on the main stage at the Royal Court in Wallace Shawn's The Fever.

Philip Fisher caught up with her on a gloriously sunny day at the National Theatre to chat about the working career of a triple award-winning theatre actress.

Downplaying her talents, she modestly expresses the view that "I've been very lucky because I've never been famous or flavour of the month or associated with a television series, but I've always worked and that is a very fortunate position to be in".

She has no doubts as to the reason. "I describe myself as quite a free range actress. I'm able to do a lot of things without getting typecast. I'm also lucky to have worked here at the National Theatre on and off since 1987".

She loves working at the National in part, because "they're very loyal: it's the nearest thing to working in a rep company, there's a great sense of security, familiarity and ease". As she enthuses, "It's almost like a second home and I'm aware that that is a very, very privileged position".

Of All's Well, she said that "it is a very bold play but it is great fun to be in". While it is one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, Marianne Elliott's production is proving that although it must be classified as an unorthodox comedy, it is also a real eye-opener for audiences.

As the occupant of its star part puts it, "They really appreciate the fact that nothing's neat and that things may very well go horribly awry once again. I love this show because it looks like a fairy tale and it does have large elements of fairy tale in the story. The brave thing is that it has been treated as a fairy tale and that's why the audiences find it satisfactory".

She continues, "They just love it, they're incredibly attentive, they love the comedy and because the play isn't familiar to most audiences they're receiving it with a freshness. They go mad at the end, they absolutely love it".

Clare Higgins is delighted to be playing a part that is generally given to theatrical grand dames, in a play that she says is her second favourite Shakespeare after The Winter's Tale. Following in a line that includes Dames Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench, the actress is particularly enthusiastic about the scene with Michelle Terry's Helena, which she regards as surprisingly modern and one of the best between two women that has ever been written.

She says, "It's just such a joy to be playing the Countess, who is a mixture of a wonderful, dignified, old lady, recently widowed and a bit of a white witch, somebody with enormous heart and soul".

It is always fascinating to discover how successful people climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Unsurprisingly, Claire Higgins is a simple, plain speaker on this subject. "Don't ever take no for an answer. The thing about this business is that if it wants you, it will take you; if it doesn't, it won't. If it wants you and you are determined, then there's no reason why you shouldn't have a long and happy career in this business".

Having decided her philosophy, "I was very single-minded, like most actors are, I wasn't particularly bothered by the idea of rejection. I knew that came with the territory". At the time, it must have seemed like a high summit to conquer but in retrospect, the statement that "My ambition when I set out was to act once with the Royal Shakespeare Company" sounds laughably understated.

Claire Higgins still appreciates the good fortune and hard work that has landed her in a dream career. "It's a gift to be in this profession because 95 per cent of people out there want to be doing what we are doing" and still, despite her regular successes, "I try never to get blasé, never to get comfortable or try to rest on a few laurels".

It is possible that despite all of the stage work, one of the best actresses around is best known as the star of the movie shocker, Clive Barker's Hellraiser, but on being asked to compare the stage with film or TV work, the answer is very simple: "I prefer stage, always, way above anything".

The quality of this Bradford-born lady's acting has been recognised in the award of three Oliviers for Best Actress and they also demonstrate the variety of her talents. The first came for Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, the second for Vincent in Brixton, the biographical play about Vincent van Gogh by Nicolas Wright and, most recently, her starring role as Hecuba in Euripides' eponymous play at the Donmar was deservedly rewarded. Amazingly, this last performance was her first ever foray into Greek tragedy, although more recently she played Jocasta opposite Ralph Fiennes in Oedipus at the National.

The remarkable range and the achievement of conquering every type of role seem to give Miss Higgins real pleasure. She genuinely seems pleased to excel in every kind of role and with 25 years in the profession behind her, believes that her technical skills are developed to the stage where chopping and changing is not a problem.

She is keen to single out the hard work behind her performance as Hecuba for Jonathan Kent. "I really felt stretched and opened out so much during that. It was my first Greek ever and that was an extraordinary experience".

The play closest to her heart is perhaps Vincent in Brixton, which she performed in the Cottesloe at the National, in the West End, on Broadway (where she rechristened it "Vinnie in the Bronx") and then touring in the UK for three months. "It was the play that wouldn't die. I was amazed at how successful it was and then I realised that for some reason that play had the gift of touching people. I still get letters about it. If I meet people in the street who have seen it they stop me. It hit people right in the heart".

This enthusiasm and fondness for Vincent in Brixton will soon be reprised as she will be performing in an earlier Nicholas Wright play, Mrs Klein, at the Almeida towards the end of the year.

All being well after that, Clare Higgins will be returning to the National in a play from the classical repertoire, the title of which she is not yet allowed to disclose.

Even after such a sparkling career, hints of self-doubt are still discernible. "It is true that every time you do a play you think that's it, nobody will ever ask me again. Judi Dench once told me that she still thinks that. That's just neurosis: we can't help it".

There is an immediate answer to the question as to the part that she would most like to take on. "I've never played Lady M. I do long to play it, even though as actresses who have played it point out it's only four scenes and I say 'yes but look at them!'"

If Nicholas Hytner (or for that matter any other wise director) is lining up a new production of the Scottish play, they will find that casting "Lady M." is a breeze. Not only will they get a fine actress who is perfect for the job but a lovely personality with a really sunny disposition and infectious laugh. Indeed, it almost seems as if only concern is that in talking about the ups and ups of a quarter of a century in show business, she might sometimes sound too much like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

"All's Well" runs in rep at the National until 30th September, 2009

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©Peter Lathan 2009