THE ARTS: The first stage of grief

Acting is the best therapy for helping cope with the death of his son, David Horovitch tells Peter Crawley ahead of his Dublin…

Acting is the best therapy for helping cope with the death of his son, David Horovitch tells Peter Crawleyahead of his Dublin debut.

One difficult day, not too long ago, the English actor David Horovitch needed some good advice. Three weeks earlier he had been offered a lead role in Honour, b*spoke Theatre Company's new production of the play by Joanna Murray-Smith, and now the company needed to know his response. Horovitch, still unsure, phoned a friend, a well-known British actress, who knew the play, knew his circumstances and recommended, unequivocally, that he should do it. "It will be a fantastic distraction," she told him.

Horovitch, it transpires, needed to be distracted from a shattering grief. "I've been milling over whether I should talk to you about how I come to be here doing this play," Horovitch said carefully at the start of our interview. "And I think it's not a bad idea. I've had a tragedy this year in my life. My son died earlier this year. He died in January. And I just couldn't work for a few months I was in such a state."

Tom, his 36-year-old son, had died in his sleep in a hotel room in India, where he had arrived during a motorbike tour of the world. His family has never learned the cause of his death, though no foul play is suspected. "It's been a very difficult year for me emotionally," Horovitch volunteers. "The only work I've done since then was a couple of radio plays. I thought I'd love to do a play, but I'm not sure that I could sustain a long run."


When the Irish actor Ingrid Craigie - a friend of Horovitch's for 20 years - suggested he play the role, the conditions seemed right to ease back into theatrical performance. "When I read Honour, it just seemed like the thing to do," he says. "I can't tell you why. Something to do with being in an unknown city, a place I'd never worked in, which didn't have associations with my boy. And something to do with the fact that it was a very short engagement. It's always seemed to me a great theatre city. So that's why I came to be here."

A gently spoken, trim man in his early 60s, if Horovitch's blue eyes seem naggingly familiar it is largely to do with a stack of appearances in television dramas and Sunday evening detective serials. His theatre credits are also plentiful, most recently with roles in Mary Stuartat the Donmar Warehouse and Losing Louie,for which he was directed by Robin Lefevre, who coincidentally had also recommended the part of George in Honourto him long before.

Joanna Murray-Smith's play, first staged in her native Melbourne in 1995 and later successfully produced on Broadway and, more recently, in London, details the break-up of a 32-year marriage between George, an accomplished literary critic, and Honor, a gifted poet whose career has been stifled in her support for her spouse. It is, essentially, the portrait of a family devastated, which strikes you as no easy ride for a performer. Horovitch agrees.

"But as someone said to me just before I came over, in the very best sense, acting can be a form of therapy. Therapy is not easy, and it's not easy doing this play, but it has been wonderful for me, actually." The play may depict the destruction of a family, he says, "but I think there's an upside to the play which is Honor herself, finding her voice as a poet again. I think the person who comes out of it worst is George."

Actually, George has some stiff competition from the figure of Claudia, the opportunistic, unfeeling journalist who, at one point, worries that she and George, her older lover, are becoming cliches. When the usually hyper-articulate George tells Honor of his desire to separate, his justification could have come straight from a dog-eared copy of the Handbook for Adulterers: "I only realised how, how unhappy I've been . . . I've got these - I feel these huge, huge needs." Is there something for an actor to find within George to transcend cliche?

"In some ways I think he's like a great many of my friends and contemporaries," Horovitch replies, after some consideration. "I don't know that I do think he's a cliche. I feel he's been faithful all his life." George might have remained that way, Horovitch contends, "but it's the fact that Claudia just lays her body before him, as she does, and he is at a certain time in his life that it exposes things that have been unresolved in him for years. Thereafter, his attempts to justify it are fearfully inarticulate. But in a way there is no justification for it. I think he finds himself rendered inarticulate by his enslavement to passion."

As the title indicates, the play really belongs to one person, George having sacrificed both his Honor and his honour in the name of a surge of longing. But in one speech, at least, George affirms some complexity, explaining the energy that this new desire has bestowed on him. It reminded me of Horovitch's long-term relationship with television and film, the love affair that gradually stifles into a routine of interminable set-ups and quick takes while filming a series such as Miss Marple(where he played Inspector Slack) or An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

The theatre, he says, whether it be Shaw or Shakespeare, "requires a tremendous sort of energy . . . You're talking about the newness of the relationship in Honour. There's a newness every time you tackle a play. No two plays are alike."

Each cast has a different dynamic too, he finds, something of which he is keenly aware on his first professional engagement in Ireland. "Irish actors are absolutely no different from British actors," he says. "They're desperately insecure, paranoid, delightful, funny. I think actors are wonderful people. Of course, I would say that. And there's something about a play that becomes a very intense little family group for a relatively brief period of time. Then we all go our separate ways and that's sort of the charm of it."

Horovitch, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and built up his experience performing in regional repertory theatres, rarely speaks of acting as an immersive experience, preferring instead the famously flippant instruction of Noel Coward: "Just say the lines and don't trip over the furniture."

He also rather likes the advice of David Mamet, who contends that characters are created in the minds of an audience and that an actor should go onstage as though going on a hot date. "Which is especially true of a play like this," Horovitch smiles.

He refers again to the "dark cloud" that trails him and I wonder if he can help but allow his personal tragedy seep into his performance. "I was uncomfortable about how that would work before I did the play," he admits in even tones. "My main worry was that I wouldn't be able to concentrate. But concentration hasn't been a problem. In a way I've sort of thrown myself into it. I do use my emotions, but in an oblique way that I can't define. In some ways, I feel more open with this play than I have done before. I've always been terribly private. I never talk about my private life. But I have become more open since Tom died. It feels like a lie if I don't mention it.

"It's a very curious feeling, this mourning," he says, "I've never thought about what it might be to lose a child. So there's this part of me that thinks I should be sitting alone quietly grieving, whatever that means." He thinks back to the advice of his friend, who did not work for a year after the death of her husband. "But this word, 'distraction'," he considers. "She says distraction is 90 per cent what it's about. 'He's not going to go away. You won't forget him.' I haven't regretted doing this for a second."

B*spoke's production of Honour opens at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin on Thurs and runs until July 21