English critics have not always been kind to Scots actor David O'Hara

-- a fact which bothers him not. He tells JACKIE McGLONE of his

determination to succeed on his own terms.

ASKING a working actor what he thinks of critics is like asking the

lamp-post what it thinks of the dog. Thus opined the playwright

Christopher Hampton. I am certain that David O'Hara would share his

view. The 27-year-old Glaswegian, currently giving a stunning

performance in John Byrne's new play Colquhoun and MacBryde at London's

Royal Court Theatre, has truly suffered the slings and arrows of

outrageous criticism.

It dates back more than three years, when the then 23-year-old was

cast as Mercutio at Stratford, after joining the Royal Shakespeare

Company at barely 21 to take a leading role at the company's Barbican

base, opposite Brian Cox, then the com-

pany's star performer. After his

dazzling debut as a Scots-accented Mercutio, O'Hara went on to play

one of Shakespeare's most pained and lucid protagonists, Posthumus

Leonatus in Cymbeline.

And then came the notices. ''Some of Shakespeare's finest poetry is

lost in the mouthings of an actor whose accent recalls the curse of the

Scottish play,'' announced one Michael Schmidt in the Sunday Telegraph.

Michael Billington wrote in the Guardian: ''O'Hara plays Mercutio as a

dour Scot who seems to be down on a day-trip (single rather than return)

from Edinburgh''. Irving Wardle thundered in the Times about a Mercutio

who was ''a lumbering Glaswegian bruiser''. Only Michael Ratcliffe in

the Observer got it right. He saw an ''outstanding Mercutio, behind his

pale, angry Romantic bearing is a wry, cool, classical style,

articulating the verse with considered, deliberate joy and wit''.

At the time, O'Hara told me he felt he was the victim of ''racist

attacks'' by the critics. ''Reviews like the Sunday Telegraph's ought to

be banned under the Race Relations Act,'' he fumed. ''If I were a black

actor, I'd have been able to sue them for their racism,'' he said. In

1989 I felt that few critics had registered the painfully raw feelings

throbbing through the lines delivered by O'Hara as a dour, decent

bull-necked Celt in Cymbeline. He played a man brutalised by

disillusioned misery. ''I tried to make it truthful,'' he said, ''and

all they could go on about was my Glaswegian accent, the 'Gorbalese', as

they call it.''

Now he says: ''All I ever did was play the play; the accent was never

an issue when we went on tour with Romeo and Juliet because people --

audiences -- don't care how you speak. Anyway, it wasn't a very hard

Scottish accent, was it?''

With his superb Mercutio (I have yet to see his performance bettered

and I have seen several productions of the play since), he subtly

suggested that the character's need to talk dirty was compulsive, the

defence mechanism of a man so insecure about love that he continually

has to reduce it to sex. Which certainly reminded me of several Scotsmen

and not a few Englishmen. But that was back in 1989. Here we are three

years on and, says O'Hara, the critics are still at it. Only this time

round, it is Byrne who is bearing the brunt of the London critics' bile.

He has had the gall, you see, to write a play about two gay Scottish

artists who lived in London and who, in the words of a ferocious attack

in the Spectator, ''were part of Soho life in the forties''. Oh, they

were honorary Englishmen were they?

So Byrne has been accused of writing ''absolute crap'' by those who

say they actually knew and got drunk with the two painters, and on

BBC2's Late Show we have been treated to the spectacle of a critic

lambasting the play, who happened to sit in front of me the night I was

there and who turned round and stared rudely at my companion and myself

every single time we laughed at Byrne's brilliantly funny script. The

rest of the time, he had his eyes closed. None of this surprises O'Hara.

Since leaving the RSC, he has appeared in a variety of media,

including playing the lead in Jute City on television and a starring

role in a film, The Bridge, which unhappily disappeared without trace.

But it was when he appeared as an unconventional student in Howard

Barker's savage fable The Bite of the Night that he says he really

gained an insight into the sorry state of English criticism.

''Barker wrote a really great play but virtually all of the critics

who came to see it stayed for only the first half. It was more than four

hours long, although it had been cut down from about five-and-a-half.

Only two or three of the critics stayed to the end. But all of them

slammed it to pieces. How the hell could they slam something they hadn't

stayed and watched? They said the actors said things which weren't in

the script -- they had the script because the programme was the script

and I don't think there was any excuse for getting that sort of thing

wrong. I think they are a lazy shower of bastards, and ever since then I

have thought the critics can just stick it as far as I am concerned.

''I don't care or mind what they say about me. Of course, it can still

get to you. But now although I still read them avidly, I just think,

'och, half of youse don't know what you are talking about, anyway'. They

have gone for John Byrne's play in a really savage way, apart from The

Herald's critic [John Linklater] who gave it a rave, which was just

great. You see, we were bound to have problems with it down here because

half of the English critics are pissed off anyway because they don't

have a nationality to cling on to. Okay, they say we cling too closely

to ours as Scots, why the **** shouldn't we? And anyway, that's in the

nature of the funniness of the play, that Colquhoun and MacBryde were

selling, marketing their Scottishness 40-odd years ago, long before

anyone had even thought of doing that.

''The English have done the same thing to us for the last 300 years,

so we have every right to do it back, to get our own back, if you

like.'' When I first met David O'Hara, he told me he felt the constant

harping on his accent by the critics was ''screwing'' him up personally

and politically. If he was to continue as an actor, he said, and at that

time he was unsure about his future, he said he felt it could only be as

a European, not as a Scots actor or a British actor.

He felt, he said, utterly alone at Stratford, probably because he

played a loner in both plays. The truly remarkable thing about O'Hara is

how good an actor he is and the fact that he is virtually unknown on his

native heath. All right, he has done the statutory TV work up here, the

Taggarts and so forth, but there has been no stage work in Scotland. ''I

have asked my agent to check out the possibilities of working at the

Citz or the Tron or the Traverse, I'd really love to do something in

Scotland; I'm desperate to work in Glasgow, or Belfast, or Dublin in

rep. But I think

people don't know me up there,'' he says over lunch in a Sloane Square

wine bar in London.

''In Scotland they probably all think I'm an English bastard and they

don't realise you are fighting it at both ends, that in London they

think I'm a Scots so-and-so. You just can't win, but I don't worry about

it because I think if they are daft enough to think that about me, where

are their heads, anyway?''

The youngest of seven children, O'Hara was born in Pollok into a

working-class Catholic family. The son of a retired labourer and his

late wife, as a child he was left very much to his own devices by his

mother's early death. Acting, he says, has done everything for him. ''It

has given me the words. I've watched men like my dad being patronised

all their working lives, having shit poured on them by Protestants in

Glasgow and the patriarchal English establishment.'' But you won't catch

him running scared of such people. ''Acting has given me a voice, the

'language' to fight back.''

A YOPs scheme at Glasgow Arts Centre led him to the Central School of

Speech and Drama in London. His first year was ''brilliant'', then he

was beset by serious financial problems. Finding it impossible to live

on his ''paltry grant'', he rebelled. He doesn't know why. ''I don't

have a rebellious nature. I'm not a rebel. I think I'm quite a

vulnerable person, quite sensitive; I'm certainly not a Glasgow hard man

and I was young and lost in London. I'll always do what has to be done

until people show fascist tendencies. I am not one to run around kissing

people's feet -- you have to have a sense of your own dignity.'' But he

found the regime at Central just too autocratic.

He got himself an agent and some TV and film work (most notably in

Bill Forsyth's Comfort and Joy and in the BBC's The Monocled Mutineer)

between terms. ''They didn't like it because I got my own Equity card

and some work. But I'd have starved otherwise; I just couldn't live in

London on so little money.'' By the time he was 21, he was playing a

Glaswegian rent boy opposite Brian Cox in Doug Lucie's Fashion at the

RSC. ''Acting has made me,'' O'Hara says.

''If I'd stayed in Glasgow, I know I would have been unemployed at 24

or whatever, or I'd have joined the Army like my elder brother who

served in Northern Ireland but who had to come home to Glasgow to be

beaten up by Rangers supporters -- I've escaped that dubious 'pleasure'.

Or I'd have been out on the streets, drinking a bottle of El Dorado a

day and shooting up heroin.

''I do get very wound up about Scotland, though. Yet I'm also a

distant Irishman, that's why I'm dead keen to work in Belfast or Dublin.

I remember the bigotry and the gang fights. But I'm a nationalist at

heart; I want Scotland to be independent because the more responsibility

people are given the more capable they are of exercising it. Yet I also

worry about limiting myself by being patriotic. Patriotism is, after

all, only a brilliant device for diverting the

people's attention from what really matters.''

His career, says O'Hara, hasn't been planned. At the moment he is

''riding along and just letting it happen. After Colquhoun and MacBryde,

there could be an American movie, if the cash comes through, in which

I'll be allowed to do something daft on screen. I'll be the dumb drummer

in this film which is about a group like the Stones; it's a sort of

Spinal Tap set in 1960-something. It would be nice to be really silly

for a change.

''Whatever happens, I know I will go on acting. It's just a job,

anyway, isn't it? I'll soldier on because I don't come from a family of

brain surgeons, so I have nothing to live up to, apart from myself, if

that makes sense. Maybe I'll take a different job within the business. I

mean, what else is there to do? Teach English? I don't think so.''

* Colquhoun and MacBryde continues at the Royal Court, London, until

October 17.