BWW Interview: David Haig Talks PRESSURE
David Haig, whose extensive acting career encompasses stage and screen, is currently starring in Pressure at the Ambassadors Theatre - a play that he also wrote.
How did Pressure come about?
It originated in a commission from the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, which was looking for a story about an unsung Scots hero. I'd never heard of James Stagg [meteorologist and protagonist of Pressure] before I discovered his story with director John Dove.
Once I started researching Stagg, I found him irresistible. I also found Kay Summersby's [general factotum to General Eisenhower] memoirs very moving. In those three individuals, I had the triangular strength emotionally to support the play's facts.
How important is the Scottish element?
There's a characteristic solidity and integrity in certain Scots I've met that I admire hugely, particularly in these febrile times in which we live. Stagg doesn't give away what he feels straightaway - he's an old-fashioned Scot. It's Stagg's honesty in the play that ultimately impresses Eisenhower and informs the choice he has to make.
Tell us about the key relationships in the play
Stagg, Summersby and Eisenhower's relationship is best described as an interdependence under pressure in this extraordinary concentrated countdown to D-Day. They fit into each others' personalities, with Kay Summersby as the fulcrum. She enjoyed great support from Churchill and Roosevelt, because her power to stabilise the men in the room was critical, especially to Eisenhower.
I have no historical evidence to substantiate the relationship I portray between Summersby and Stagg, but the other two sides of the triangle (Stagg and Eisenhower and Summersby and Eisenhower) are presented absolutely factually.
How have you found playing Stagg?
I've done about 230 performances as Stagg (which I never expected) - to stay fresh, I tell myself that, like Stagg, I am an actor doing a job, and I try to do my job well. I find that approach incredibly useful for getting me into the headspace of Stagg when he walks into the Weather Room five days before D-Day with his forecasting to do. The stakes are very different, but the responsibility of putting on a play and producing weather forecasts for Eisenhower is the same kind of mental game.
How important was it for you to reflect actual events?
The playwright's job is to get to the essential truth of the story they tell - that's far more important than the "actual" truth. Both Stagg's sons (Peter and Sandy) have seen the play and enjoyed it very much.
Before writing it, I asked their permission to ratchet up the dramatic tension by giving Stagg's wife hypertension during her pregnancy. Peter and Sandy were happy for me to introduce that dimension, because the essential truth of Stagg's work is portrayed in the play, as is the essential truth of the relationships. The fictional elements enhance the power of a true story.
Is it tricky getting across all this information in an entertaining way?
Half the fun of writing a play that's an amalgam of science and passion is the audience tuning into the passionate nature of the scientific arguments, and not noticing how often crucial information is provided - and, consequently, the clumsiness of direct exposition is avoided. The scientific knowledge is digested by the audience, but they're excited by the opposition of the views of the characters and how they are articulated.
We did talk about using video of the D-Day landings as a backdrop at times - but it's more powerful to keep the story compressed in the small room, the external consequences in the audience's minds. People know so much anyway from films like Saving Private Ryan.
What has the response been like?
Service personnel have proved enthusiastic about the play. We had the Deputy Secretary General of NATO in to see it and he was very positive, as was General Sir Mike Jackson (previously Commander-in-Chief, Land Command). Military staff further up the chain are more accepting of the "essential truth" approach - a captain and major who saw it and were more interested in the reality of the details, the sequencing of events.
There are no enemies in the play - other than the weather - so there's nothing to offend members of the Forces, nor anyone else.
I've been really pleased at how much younger people have got out of the play. I wrote it "for everybody" but I was aware that there is a demographic drawn to it. But at the Park Theatre, before the West End run and in the evenings, we're finding that it resonates with a younger audience - which is very satisfying.
Did you deliberately try to introduce humour too?
The humour arises instinctively rather than being superimposed on the narrative. It wasn't my intention to make it an amusing play, but there are times in the script when Stagg says something to Eisenhower and I confess that I am looking for a response from the audience! It was a surprise to me to discover that so many things would be found funny.
Tell us about the maps you have in the play
I love the maps we use in the Weather Room - I have copies of them on my iPad. They're authentic, sourced from Stagg's memoir. We did change the colours a little to reflect the muted quality for which we were looking.
There's still an original map at Southwick House (where the play is set) made by the Chad Valley Toy company - as mentioned in the play. The series of maps revealed on stage adds to the tension, as the audience sees the weather changing and the competing forecasts gaining and losing credibility.
Does Pressure have particular points to make to a contemporary audience?
Pressure is not a Political Play, though the humanity of the three main characters does make it political in a looser sense. But, since it was written, one its key themes - experts advising leaders - has become much more of a contemporary issue.
There's so much polarisation and populism these days that there are values that the play upholds - the importance of taking stances based on trust and careful thought - have a power that they did not have even four years ago. When Eisenhower makes his decision, we show him doing so in a humane, considered and careful manner - Malcolm Sinclair (who plays Eisenhower) does it so well in the scene.
What are your future plans?
I'd love to get Pressure filmed (plans currently moving forward), and I have two other writing projects - the development of which depends on how much interest they generate. Having acted for the first nine months, I'd love to write through the winter.