During the 1970s, when the trend for performances in studio theatres to be more successful than those in larger theatres began, Donald Sinden was asked if perhaps we needed more small theatres? "No," he replied, "We need more big actors." Alan Howard was precisely the type of actor he had in mind. With a charismatic stage presence that is riveting even from the back of the balcony, a vocal technique that can make a whisper heard anywhere in the biggest auditorium, and the ability to create a character just by walking onto a stage, he is a far cry from many modern actors whose main experience is in television and who, onstage, have no idea how to fill the (comparatively) enormous space they find themselves in, cannot be heard beyond the first few rows of the stalls without the aid of a radio microphone, and who generally appear to be dead from the neck down.
I first saw Alan Howard onstage in 1966 as a compelling Orsino (surely one of Shakespeare's most thankless major roles) and was instantly impressed, although I had no opportunity to see him again in the theatre until his Edgar in King Lear two years later. On seeing this, I knew immediately that here was a world class actor. Neither before nor since have I seen an Edgar who so clearly mirrored the experiences of Lear himself, who made Poor Tom's gibberish so meaningful and so moving, or who used movement, particularly in the Heath Scenes, to such effect. Here was an actor who obviously not only had a deep understanding of the text, but who clearly thought in theatrical images, and who had the technique to realise them onstage in an exciting and uncompromising manner. It was a thrilling performance of the sort that not only rivets you in the theatre, but that keeps you awake at night thinking about it, and that comes back into your mind unbidden for years afterwards. When the emotion of the performance is recollected in tranquillity it also forces complete reassessment of a familiar text, because it cuts through years of stage tradition and received thought as if seeing the play for the first time, new minted.
It would be difficult for any actor to live up to this profound impression over a lengthy period of years. No actor would be human if some performances were not better than others. However, having seen almost all of Alan Howard's subsequent work onstage, I have never seen him give a performance that was not well worth watching, and many have been stunning, original, vital and exhilarating; all of them have been hugely imaginative and highly intelligent. There can be no doubt whatsoever that he is one of the world's great actors.
Alan Howard is a professional to his fingertips, coming from a line of actors who have now been treading the boards in unbroken succession for almost 200 years. Whilst not actually born onstage, he probably got used to the idea of appearing on it even before birth, his mother continuing to act until only a short time before he was born, and he was named after the character of "Alan How ard" in Rattigan's French Without Tears, which his father understudied in the West End. Despite such a theatrical heritage, offstage he is a vague-looking man whom one probably would not notice in a crowd. Most people would never guess he was an actor from his appearance, and he is even capable of walking past stage door autograph hunters without them noticing - or at any rate recognising - him. The vague look (also cultivated by his father, Arthur Howard, and his uncle, Leslie Howard) seems to mean that he is thinking hard, probably about his current role. Usually a mild, polite man with a warm, almost boyish smile, a dry sense of humour, and considerable charm, he nevertheless is extremely quick on the uptake, has a mind of his own and is given to defending his very independent beliefs when they are challenged. He also has a spectacularly fiery temper when roused - this, too, along with the red hair, is traceable back to the very beginnings of the family theatrical tradition - and a lamentable tendency to be in possession of a lighted cigarette.
Even with theatre in his blood and an inborn professionalism, acting cannot have been an easy career option in other ways. Extremely short-sighted (although contrary to popular belief he can obviously see well enough onstage, where he wears contact lenses, and well enough offstage to drive a car), he has also been an insulin-dependant diabetic since nearly the beginning of his working life, and has been quoted as saying, "I was determined not to let it stand in my way." Nor does it seem to have done, although at times the problems must have been tremendous, particularly given the enormous demands of playing leading classical roles and the huge workload he has often borne. In common with many of his colleagues in the theatre, I can only admire what must be a steely control of the condition, taking into account not just performance demands, but also the demands made by touring the world - living in hotels, permanently eating out in restaurants, coping with official receptions and parties for the cast etc. His grit, determination and iron will leave me almost as much in awe of him as a person as his performances leave me in awe of him as an actor, and it is unfortunate that despite this there have been some more serious medical problems in recent years, although perhaps these were almost inevitable given the length of time that he has been diabetic. Very much of the traditional breed of actors, with presents on first nights and champagne on last nights (although he hates theatrical parties and showbusiness razzamatazz) he is also traditional in his attitude of "the show must go on". Whilst even he has very occasionally been forced to miss a performance, usually he has continued to act through thick and thin - despite a sprained ankle in a repertory production of Charley's Aunt, and another in A Midsummer Night's Dream in Washington; despite feeling ill enough to have to rush offstage in mid-performance to be sick in the wings on at least two occasions (in A Midsummer Night's Dream on tour in Cardiff, and in Macbeth at the National Theatre); despite medical advice that to perform might permanently damage his voice (it didn't) during the Paris run of Coriolanus; and, in Oedipus at Epidauros, even despite being in considerable pain having badly fractured his wrist at the dress rehearsal. It probably goes without saying that he will always argue for a show going ahead at the first scheduled performance even if no one else thinks it should. To cancel is, after all, very unprofessional.
What qualities does Alan Howard have as an actor that make him so outstanding? There is no single answer to this, and even the sum total of what can be said does not add up to a full answer any more than all the words ever written about Shakespeare encapsulate his genius. He is an actor whose performances arouse violent emotions in people. They either love him or they hate him, but I have never met anyone who was indifferent to him. The violence of feelings towards his work is a great compliment, even when the feelings in question are antagonistic. They are aroused, I think, largely because he is not a cosy, comfortable actor giving a chocolate-boxey performance that will confirm an onlooker's complacent, self-satisfied view of the world, but rather a deeply disturbing actor who can challenge or even totally shatter such a view, shocking, undermining and forcing reassessment of the world as we see it, and the plays as many imagine them, through his originality, his uncompromising portrayals, and his willingness to follow the less comfortable side of a role right through to the end of the line if that is what to his eyes is there in the text. These ideas are never glibly imposed on a play but always have their roots deeply embedded in the text and character he is playing.
Capturing the dichotomy of a character and its innate contradictions is one of Alan Howard's great strengths as an actor. His characters' inconsistency is what makes them real, not one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes. They are always shown to be ambivalent, to be ambiguous, to be heroic and anti-heroic at one and the same time. Thus his victims are shown to be strong, and his heroes are shown to be weak. They are never the same as one another, never predictable even when one knows Alan Howard's work well, but are always fresh and original. In an Alan Howard performance one is also likely to be confronted by the dark side of even the most sympathetic character, and perhaps another reason that some people find him too disturbing an actor for their taste is an unwillingness to face their own darker side, their Mr. Hyde, mirrored onstage.
Illustrating the ambiguities inherent in the text is part of the trick of encapsulating all these contradictions, realising the potential of telling lines which are too often hurried over or thrown away by other actors. Even with lines that are eagerly grabbed by every actor worth their salt, Alan Howard has an ability to show the reverse side of the line, to show how every positive involves the rejection of a negative, and vice versa. He has sometimes been criticised for putting across too much detail in Shakespearean texts, although the broader brush strokes are always present as well. Personally, I find this fine work revelatory, for what is the point of the textual subtlety of a great play if all of its nuances are lost in performance? Listening to Alan Howard is like hearing Shakespeare think.
This detailed and complex approach to character and text typifies Alan Howard's approach to a play as a whole, as an entire work of art. It is obvious from what he has said (although he has never managed to express it very well - unsurprisingly, as it is extremely complex) that he does not see a play or a character just as a linear progression starting at the first line and working through to the last line. The majority of people looking at a blueprint for a liner would, from the lines on the paper, be unable to satisfactorily envisage the finished ship, very much a 3D object, with space to walk about, superb fittings, cabins, restaurants, swimming pools, and yet at the same time consisting of thousands of tons of metal, powered by a complex working engine, using highly-developed radar etc. No more can the average person, or even literary critic, imagine a play in all its glory and detail on a stage from the blueprint of the text. Most of us are reduced to talking about it - a linear progression of words which makes merely a small track through a complex whole. Many actors first approach a play in this manner, and then try to translate their linear thoughts into stage terms. Alan Howard, on the contrary, can envisage the whole, and thinks about it directly in theatrical terms. His problem is not how to translate his linear ideas into 3D stage terms, but how, when asked, to translate what he embodies in a performance into ordinary verbal sentences. Anyone who has heard him trying to talk about a role will realise that, unlike many lesser actors, he is certainly not glib, because what he wants to say is too complex to satisfactorily go into words. Anyone who has observed the wonderful soaring arc of his major performances will realise why. A parabola is a shape, not a sentence, and acting is his means of communication, not talking.
This approach often does not go down well with critics, particularly literary critics, who want to be able to encapsulate a theatrical performance in a tidy analysis that fits their own linear and word-based views. Alan Howard usually does even less well with those who write books on theatrical performance taken purely from a reading of the prompt copies. Apart from sheer pieces of stage business, there is not much of a performance in a prompt copy, and in Alan Howard's case, sometimes nothing at all. In the prompt copy of his Henry IV Part 1, only a few lines into the great scene between Hal and his father, there is a brief note stating, "From here on anything can happen", the rest of the scene remaining blank except for a few notes about getting off at the very end - a wonderful tribute to both the actors involved (the other was the late Emrys James) and their ability to react to the text, to each other and to the audience in completely different ways at each performance.
Indeed, there are areas in Alan Howard's best performances that go some way beyond the text as written, filling the spaces between the lines, even between the words, in a way which literary criticism could never prove, but which a performance, just by virtue of working overwhelmingly well in the theatre, can not only justify, but can make to seem inevitable, plunging into the mystic heart of the play. I am personally in no doubt that by virtue of achieving this at all, let alone on a regular basis, Alan Howard himself must be a mystic - although he might well be surprised at the definition. It is one more reason why he is able so successfully to encompass many of the really great roles, bringing what is ultimately intangible and indefinable to them, matching their unfathomable depths with his own. Who could forget the amazing purity he brought to the apotheosis of Oedipus? Or the cosmic sense of the predestination of a god he brought to Coriolanus's decision to spare Rome at the expense of his own life?
Of course putting any of this across onstage relies first and foremost on a formidable technique, which is always invisible to an audience, who never notice the wheels going round. Alan Howard never went to drama school, and thus happily managed to avoid a great many bad habits and a mass-produced, conveyor-belt style. He learnt a good deal of his skill in the hard graft of fortnightly rep, where one had to acquire basic stage technique very rapidly in order to survive. There was no time for the luxury of exploration of text and character in rehearsal. Instead, there was a pressing necessity to get a competent show onto the boards in front of the public in a fortnight, whilst simultaneously learning lines, and giving eight performances per week of a different play. The range of productions was enormous - Shakespeare, musicals, farces, well-made plays, pantomimes, Restoration comedies. To meet so many different requirements actors were often, of necessity, cast against both type and age. After a few years they would have experienced - and to some degree would have learnt to cope with - absolutely everything. I doubt if anyone ever hit the heights of art in fortnightly rep, but the heights of art could later be built on what they learnt there, and the demise of the repertory system in Britain probably goes a long way towards explaining the low standards of stage acting in many younger actors today, too many of whom are barely competent in stage technique. Alan Howard had two years' experience of rep at Coventry, playing everything from Professor Higgins (aged 22) to Tone in Reluctant Heroes. The technique he acquired - and developed - has certainly set him in good stead for his later career, and the actor Peter Carr, who was in The Silver King with him at Chichester, remarked that Alan Howard was easily the most technically accomplished actor he had ever worked with, able to do absolutely anything suggested in rehearsal straight off-the-cuff, and without a moment's hesitation. This ability is often a great asset in the theatre, assisting in dealing with the crises that inevitably happen from time to time during a live performance. It is also an incalculable asset in the variety that Alan Howard can bring to the same performance on different evenings. His performances are never fixed or predictable, but change from night to night, never the same twice. Always an actor to surprise an audience by doing something quite different from what they expected, whilst simultaneously making it seem inevitable, this improvisatory quality even keeps audience members who have seen the production before guessing. It keeps performances fresh, and constantly developing, whilst Alan Howard's sheer theatrical instinct and intelligence prevents there ever being a wrong note or anything that appears inappropriate. In Macbeth, at the National Theatre, he never seemed to do the big speeches the same way twice - and they worked every time, an impressive achievement given that the majority of actors struggle to make them work at all, even in one rehearsed, polished way. The last night of Antony and Cleopatra at the Aldwych Theatre was even more of a revelation. Alan Howard was reputed to be somewhat unhappy in the production, and, perhaps because of this, gave a performance completely different from anything he had ever done before. It got the best reception at the curtain calls of any of the performances I had seen, even though it must have made terrible demands on the rest of the cast, some of whom were woefully unable to cope.
Sometimes the effect can be equally iconoclastic with much smaller touches. The performance of Coriolanus when Alan Howard, after sparing Rome, inflected the word "peace" as a question, so that a key line read, "All the swords of Italy and her confederate arms could not have made this - peace?" is a good case in point. The querying of the last word completely altered the meaning of the entire play, and certainly made me spend many hours reconsidering it. Alan Howard himself thereafter made the line exceedingly ambiguous, and in fact is on record as suggesting that the word may refer to a family-unity peace as well as to a military one, although I defy even the brightest member of the audience to think of this during an actual performance, even given the intimate family grouping that concluded the scene in this production. Nevertheless, the depth of the questioning of the text that leads to such an original secondary interpretation of a pivotal line is typical of Alan Howard.
The ability to change things, to react to the text and to the audience's reaction to it that particular evening, has also been of inestimable value during his comic performances. In these, his split-second timing is impeccable, his eager or woebegone facial expressions a delight. No potential double entendre escapes his notice, and he never misses a potential laugh, sometimes gained on truly unpromising lines. All of this is achieved by spontaneous assessment of the seismic waves which flow from the audience to the actor, and the instantaneous adaptation of his own performance to suit the mood of the moment. Moreover, no one who saw the way in which he sent up many of his own performances in Wild Oats (and to a lesser extent in The Forest and The Swan-Down Gloves) could accuse him to taking either himself or his art too seriously. Nor could they fail to reflect on how very fine is the dividing line between grabbing the audience by the throat with emotion, and convulsing the audience with helpless laughter at the same words, and with the same business. He has always trodden this fine line with all the skill and daring of a tightrope walker, defying mirth in tragedy, defying grief in comedy.
Risk taking in a performance has always been an Alan Howard hallmark - risks of innovation and daring, of sailing comparatively uncharted waters, often against the wind, giving his performances an edge of danger that makes them truly compelling. It is like watching a trapeze artist without a safety net, waiting with bated breath for him to fall, and applauding all the more when, thankfully, he does not. It gives an excitement and a thrill never experienced during the sort of performance that may be slick and polished, but which is also completely safe. The imagination which it takes to do this must always spring from the text and character. Too many productions, in desperate attempts to liven up a dead show, superimpose all manner of extraneous and irrelevant tricksy business in an attempt to interest the audience. These are doomed to failure, and usually say more about the actor's or the director's psyche than they do about the play. Real art is finding an original, imaginative, and startlingly theatrical way of illustrating what is there in the blueprint of the text. Few who saw it would forget Alan Howard's Coriolanus seizing the table at which the tribunes were making notes, raising it high above his head whilst papers flew in all directions, and finally hurling it at them with a force that made it bounce on the stage. The audience gasped every time. The same business was later filched by Alan Howard's understudy, Charles Dance, when he played the role in a rather too similar production, but has not become a standard practice, probably since many Coriolanuses are too puny to effect it. Richard IIs, on the other hand, used customarily, in the deposition scene, to fling down their mirror on the stage to break it. Alan Howard very excitingly smashed it with his hand - a piece of business which is now often employed by other actors, and indeed was taken rather too far by at least one, who smashed it with his face. Imagination is all very well, but it must keep within character - Richard was surely much too vain to risk disfigurement!
Some imaginative touches by Alan Howard are too idiosyncratic to his individual portrayal of a character ever to be emulated, or else require too virtuoso a performance for other actors to pull them off. His startling appearance in the midnight party scene of Troilus and Cressida as Achilles in drag as Helen of Troy has not, as far as I know, been copied, since probably only Alan Howard himself had the skill to make it work - a comparatively early example of Alan Howard leaving the audience gasping in one of the roles that first brought him the sort of attention that had audience members writing letters to the national newspapers about his performance. Even 40 years, and many productions of Troilus and Cressida, later, it still seems as stunning and original as it did when it burst upon the theatre scene in 1968.
When writing about his work, critics frequently focus on the vocal side of his technique. This is somewhat ironic, as anyone who remembers Alan Howard's early performances, even for the RSC, or who has heard recordings of him dating from the early 1960s, will know that his voice is not his best natural asset, although it is true that one would never realise that today, and he must have worked extremely hard at developing its savage beauty. However, vocal technique can be learnt, and John Gielgud too is said to have needed to work very hard to achieve his famous mellifluous tones, his natural voice leaving much to be desired. What Alan Howard always had, which cannot be learnt beyond a certain point of competence, is an innate feeling for language - both its words and its rhythms. Not only can he give these full weight, he can also use them effortlessly for his own ends with the skill of a true master, so that seemingly straightforward lines become shot through with ambiguity (which he loves), already ambiguous lines become unfathomably profound. He is particularly adept at highlighting textual connections and their implications for an audience, as words or thoughts echo throughout the play - Theseus at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream subconsciously recalling Oberon in the central section of the work, or the extraordinary use of the word "service" in Coriolanus.
Another important factor in any production is the pacing of the verse, and these days many performances of the classics are vocally much too slow. Indeed, there seems to be a current theory that in productions of Shakespeare the slower you go, the better the audience will understand it. However, keeping the pace going and the verse galloping along is the best way of keeping a production fizzing. It does, however, need actors who themselves understand what the text means, and are able to handle it technically in a way which communicates this meaning to an audience even at speed. Audiences do keep up if they want to, and are brighter than many actors (and directors) seem to imagine. Maintaining a good overall speed, with the text fairly bouncing along, puts the passages which do need to be taken more slowly into a contrasting relief. It probably goes without saying that Alan Howard can manage any variety of pace with technical dexterity. Listen to him handling the complex speeches of Coriolanus to the tribunes about granting corn freely to the multitude - at full tilt, but carrying the audience with him every inch of the way. But equally, the length of his pauses is legendary. Again as Coriolanus, his pause before sparing Rome was sometimes of a length that became difficult to endure, the tension not only palpable, but at breaking point. And the pause seemed longer since much of the production was fast, with pauses used sparingly, but tellingly. After this pause, Coriolanus's first line is, "Oh mother, mother, what have you done?" It could be any son talking to any mother, and is a line anyone could have written (in fact, North's translation of Plutarch, Shakespeare's principal source, is almost identical), although no one else would have put it after a scene of such heightened language. One of the hallmarks of great art is the way it embodies this kind of contrast, juxtaposing the mundane and the extraordinary, suddenly bringing down extreme emotion by placing it cheek by jowl with the everyday. Shakespeare is shot through with this, and Alan Howard is always very sensitive towards it in both the words and the actions of the play.
There is another type of theatrical contrast in many great plays which Alan Howard also likes to seize upon and illustrate - the gap between the apparent philosophy of the words spoken, and the reality of life as demonstrated by the action, the clash between the verbal and the visual. The great speeches of, for instance, Troilus and Cressida embody much of Elizabethan thought; the action of the play belies them completely. Alan Howard went a long way towards pointing up these contradictions with his performance of the degenerate and effete Achilles, allegedly the superhero of the Greeks, but shown by him to be obsessive in his lusts, infantile in his game-playing, at once both too cowardly to fight, and too treacherous to trust. In the study, the words of a character seem to speak louder than their actions, but in the theatre actions and body language definitely speak louder than words, and the critical furore that this portrayal caused was created almost entirely through the physical elements of Alan Howard's performance.
Indeed, the physical side of performance seems to have come much more naturally to Alan Howard than the vocal one, although it is usually less frequently commented on. Always a mesmeric presence onstage whether playing a hero or a nonentity, he has the ability physically to become the character he is playing. His command, regality and authority as Shakespeare's kings (of which he has played more than any other actor) makes one truly believe in their power and control, even when, as at the beginning of Henry V, he is wearing casual Twentieth Century clothes. This is in contrast to many actors who look as if they are merely wearing fancy dress when wearing a crown and wielding a sceptre.
He can also give the illusion of changing size and shape completely. When he was playing Coriolanus and Henry VI during the same season, listening to comments by other members of the audience, particularly those who had not seen him before, was fascinating. During the intervals of Coriolanus many comments were along the lines of, "Isn't Alan Howard enormous? I always thought he was fairly tall, but he's about 6'4", and so brawny with it!" On Henry VI nights, however, the comments went along the lines of, "Isn't Alan Howard tiny? I always thought he was fairly tall, but he's only about 5'4", and so slim and willowy as well!" In fact, Henry VI showed wonderfully well the physical aspects of an Alan Howard performance that often go unnoticed. Most people (including Alan Howard himself) thought his natural role in the plays was Warwick, but in fact the role of Henry VI turned into one of his greatest performances. It needed his ability to create a character just by walking onto a stage, for the eponymous king does not appear until Act III of the first Henry VI play, and even then, after such a long wait to meet him, he does not speak for many lines. The role also demonstrated how little Alan Howard needs to rely on external elements in a performance, never relying on props or fussy detail. Over the three Henry VI plays, his only prop was the book he was reading in exile and in prison, demanded by the text (and in fact, rather anachronistically, a copy of Coriolanus - although of course one could not tell this from the auditorium!) However, the lack of props still gave him the opportunity of making some nice unpointed but powerful statements. During the plays, Henry wore, very obviously, a large silver crucifix, sometimes at his waist, sometimes around his neck. As his fortunes declined, the crucifix went from being on a silver chain to being on a piece of rope, until finally, imprisoned and at the end of his life, he had lost even the crucifix - but still had the rope it had been on around his neck. Equally, after his first period of imprisonment, he speaks of being well-treated during his confinement, but as he raised his arm in a natural gesture his sleeve fell back to show the burns where his wrists had been cruelly tied. Nothing was done to draw attention to either of these things - they were there for the audience to find for themselves and to make of what they would. This is typical of an Alan Howard performance. The detail is never fussy or overstated (he credits the audience with being intelligent enough to make observations for themselves), and anything that is used that is not called for outright by the text is only used if it makes a forceful statement that cannot be made another way.
Another telling physical element in Henry VI was Alan Howard's use of his hands. It is always the mark of a bad actor that he does not know what to do with his hands (and may well, as a result, employ them in clutching or fiddling with extraneous props!) Alan Howard's use of his hands in Henry VI was extraordinary. Were one to have had a camera trained on them throughout the performance, anyone watching it played back, as a silent film, would never have been in any doubt as to what Henry was thinking or feeling at any given moment. Knowing how to use his hands seems to have always been an Alan Howard trait. On a photo of him amongst several others, in a repertory production of The Merchant of Venice very early in his career, he is not easy to recognise by the conventional method of looking at the face. But if in doubt, look at the hands, and which one he is becomes immediately obvious.
The Merchant of Venice (Belgrade Theatre, Coventry) - which one is Alan Howard?
The last physical aspect of performance that Henry VI illustrated so well was the way in which the King aged. Giving the illusion of being about sixteen at the beginning (Alan Howard was forty at the time), one realised, by the Battle of Towton in Henry VI Part 3, that the King looked to be about sixty. And yet never at any point had he looked noticeably older when he had entered a scene. This was because Alan Howard/Henry did all of his ageing onstage, in front of your very eyes. It was what he suffered in the play that aged him, not what happened in the dressing room with the aid of make-up, wigs etc. A true testament to a superb but completely unobtrusive technique.
The ageing through suffering brings us to an aspect of Alan Howard's performances I have hardly touched on - the emotional qualities. Alan Howard can display emotion onstage in a way rare amongst British actors, who are perhaps often held back by the notorious British reserve. Indeed, he is one of the few actors to be able to combine the intellectual with the emotional, two elements which often seem to be mutually exclusive. He has an amazingly mobile face, and his facial expressions (which occasionally look over the top on photographs, but which of course project wonderfully to the back of the gallery) are a mirror of the character's soul, and a major contributory factor to the impression of deep sincerity his performances normally give, as well as another way in which he can dominate a scene without even speaking. Like John Gielgud, he can, if required, cry onstage at the drop of a hat, although it tends to make his nose run, so that he spends the rest of the scene sniffing. Sometimes the emotion can be almost heart stopping. It may be a distillation of what the particular emotion ought to be, raw and undiluted by all the extraneous things that get in the way in real life; it may be more than one emotion, shown as a powerful mixture, with a visceral punch; it may be towering passion as in Lear's rage; or it may be sitting very still and quietly suffering whilst barely moving a muscle, but still agonising, like Henry VI watching the Battle of Towton.
Occasionally, the scene can become so intense it is difficult to watch. Henry VI, in prison and knowing he is about to be murdered by Richard of Gloucester, in Alan Howard's version triumphs over him, taunting him as he curses him. Always with the exhilaration of catharsis, this scene, on the last night at the Aldwych Theatre, became almost unbearable in its passion and intensity. What makes this happen at occasional performances? Probably even Alan Howard himself could not tell you, but certainly as he pulled out all the stops, had I not been pole-axed in my seat, I would have been on my knees begging him for mercy on the audience. So overwhelming was the impact that it was impossible to watch the actors in the last scene of the play. Far from the eye being idly bent on he who follows after the well-graced actor has been murdered, no other actor stood any chance of appearing as anything other than dross comparatively speaking - although the standard of acting throughout all the Henry VI plays was (with a couple of exceptions) extremely high. The only other time I have seen anything of comparable impact in the theatre (in attending over 4000 performances of just about everything except musicals) was in Tokusaburo Arashi's performance as Medea in Yukio Ninagawa's production, listening to the messenger describe the death of Jason's new wife. Perfection may never ultimately be attained in any of the arts, for no man can see God face to face and live, but not to give 100% to either actor for these respective scenes on at least one particular night would be churlish in the extreme, for both undoubtedly touched the sublime.
In common with many great actors (another example that springs to mind is his mentor Ralph Richardson), Alan Howard is fascinated by the way that his work onstage dies as it lives. It is different every night, and a particularly good performance can never be recaptured except in the audience's memory, for a stage actor is a sculptor who carves in snow. Perhaps it is partly this that makes him less effective as a screen actor than he is as a stage actor. A screen lacks the spontaneity and improvisatory quality of the stage. Once filmed, a performance remains fixed - and dead. Film also draws mainly on appearances, and these often lie. Alan Howard is an actor who can only project the truth. Of course, he also has the problem that his performances tend to be too big for the screen. Whilst he has no difficulty in scaling a stage performance to a small studio theatre, he has more difficulty in mastering the tiny scale and the flick of an eyelid required for film and television work, or the fact that for the most part he can only use his face, not the rest of his body. His most successful film role, I think, has been as Michael in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, and his success in it probably owes something to Peter Greenaway's baroque style, coupled with his habit of filming whole people rather than just talking heads.
The familiarity of the film and television style of acting has far-reaching effects. Its ubiquity has resulted in stage performers nowadays often being praised for giving "subtly understated" performances, which appears to mean "can't act in a theatre and doesn't even try." Such performances undercut the essence of true theatre, and make it into a poor cousin of the large and small screens, instead of concentrating on its unique virtues - its ritual and ceremonial qualities, its glorification of huge emotions, its lack of photographic realism, its opportunities for stylization and a presentational approach, its flamboyance and panache, its demands to willingly suspend disbelief, in short its sheer unabashed theatricality - which can never be reproduced on a screen. When actors more used (or more suited) to onscreen work are cast alongside Alan Howard onstage, the effect is uneasy at best. If you take their tiny, puny performances to be the norm, then Alan Howard's wonderfully theatrical effects appear to be over the top. If you take Alan Howard's full-blooded, full-throated and full-blown style, perfectly suited to the unique virtues of theatre, to be the norm, then actors with no training in or flair for the stage look as if they are just standing about muttering the lines in a manner hardly worthy of a primary school end of term play. Either way, the two styles do not sit happily together, and have resulted in some very divided reviews for certain recent productions. It is, perhaps, interesting to note that many years ago Alan Howard himself claimed he was drawn to the "natural" approach. But a "natural" way of speaking heightened theatrical language, such as Shakespearean blank verse, should be a way which still communicates that language to an audience, which displays its imagery and which makes the listener understand it on many different levels. Surely anyone listening to Alan Howard's handling of the wonderfully lyrical and ornate verse of Richard II, bringing out its poetic qualities as well as its meaning and its irony, would realise that to say it in a matter-of-fact, prosaic way could not have been Shakespeare's intention, or neither he nor the King would have so luxuriated in its elegiac qualities. Saying it in a respectful murmur to the floorboards may be a different type of "natural", but for an audience results in the inaudible, the boring and the dead. Equally Alan Howard's use of the stage and its three dimensional space is "natural" too, given that environment. Sooner or later he has used every inch of it - not only its breadth, but its entire depth and sometimes even its height as well. Indeed, he captured the god-status aspect of Coriolanus largely by his use of that normally empty space above the actors' heads, and remains the only actor I have seen who has embodied this aspect of the role. The physical danger that is often inherent in this use of space only adds to the thrill and excitement of his performances.
Recalling productions like Alan Howard's Coriolanus and all of his Shakespearean Kings at Stratford, which used sometimes the height, but always the full depth of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's stage right to the back wall, one can but sorrow at the way many later productions at the same theatre were staged almost entirely on a very linear apron stage to accommodate actors and directors who had no concept of how to use the depth of the stage at all, to the extent that they sometimes filled the command position with scenery. Not that Alan Howard has ever been an actor to hog the command position, although as a leading actor he sometimes gravitates towards it for key moments. His work in ensemble productions, where there is no obvious leading role, such as the Maxim Gorki plays in which he has appeared, has been exemplary, and his performances have blended perfectly into the whole, never overbalancing the subtle equilibrium of the play and its characters.
However, everybody who does a job, no matter how well, has at least one blank spot, and equally all actors have something which they avoid or fail to portray. With Alan Howard, I think this is sentimentality. When faced with sentiment in a play he invariably slides over it, twists it, or makes it ironic. In fact, alters it to be anything but sentimental. This complete lack of sentiment in his make up actually means he is an ideal actor for many of the greatest plays. There is no place for sentiment in Shakespeare or the Greeks - although many actors, thrown by the extreme emotions they are required to portray, substitute slushy sentimentality instead, thereby trivialising the author's original intentions and diminishing the play. Alan Howard views these roles with a more realistic eye. His dryer approach establishes their profound truth, rather than the easier options of romanticising and glamorising their content or of deliberate tear-jerking. The easy approaches give such great works a soft centre; Alan Howard's gives them a searing dramatic intensity. It is only in lesser works with shallow or gratuitous emotion that he occasionally becomes unstuck, his inner truth in a role being too absolute to encompass the superficial.
Admiration for his performances comes from all sections, from theatre practitioners to schoolchildren. No lesser luminary than Peter Brook, after directing his famous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, said that of the whole cast only Alan Howard and Frances de la Tour had any real ability as actors - no mean praise in a cast that also included Ben Kingsley and Sara Kestelman. But equally, school parties dragged to see his performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s found they were unexpectedly enjoying them, and were as enthusiastic about his immediacy, energy, virility and (in the case of the girls) his sex appeal as I have been in analysing his technique. His performances may be intricately worked, but they are also instantly communicative. No matter how extreme or outrageous the characters he portrays, there is always something in them which the audience can all recognise, and with which they can empathise.
Unsurprisingly, he is normally also highly regarded by other stage actors, not least, I think, because he is not generally given to scene stealing, and usually lets them have their big moments. This, of course, improves the overall balance of any production, and, unlike some actors, he is intelligent enough to realise that his own performance shows to its best advantage when seen in its intended setting. He is also extremely good at leading a company in a relatively quiet, undemonstrative way, underlying which is great strength of character, which normally commands the respect of all. This, together with his attitude towards his colleagues (which is never less than helpful) and his own professional abilities makes him normally admired, esteemed and appreciated by his fellow actors, although there have been occasional instances of sour grapes, invariably from actors who were themselves inadequate - highly trained, but highly untalented.
Actually, Alan Howard is his own severest critic - as anyone who has ever noticed his face at curtain calls (which he hates) will be aware. His assessment of his own performance is normally written all over it, and he does not generally look very pleased!
Unusually in this age of aggressive marketing, Alan Howard tends to shun publicity. He dislikes being interviewed, and has always managed to avoid the gossip columns, chat shows and glossy lifestyle that beset most of the famous today. With the natural modesty of the truly great (who recognise all too clearly their own limitations) he is very unlikely to announce to the world at large that he is the greatest living Shakespearean actor, although others have called him that unprompted. This lack of salesmanship has sometimes meant that, outside of theatregoing circles, where he is invariably regarded as what the Japanese would call "a Living National Treasure", he is not perhaps as well known as many lesser actors or even soap stars. This has lead, I think, to less official recognition than he should have received. When he was awarded the CBE, most theatregoers were amazed that it was not the higher KBE, which would have been well-deserved, and which many actors have received in recognition of much less talent and comparatively little service. Indeed, it had been widely rumoured since the 1970s that he had turned down official honours, since no one could believe, considering the volume and quality of his work, and the prestigious position he has long commanded in the theatre world, that he had not been offered them.
His range onstage is awe-inspiring. From tragedy to comedy, lyricism to asperity, young to old, saint to monster, king to tramp, there can be little that he has not successfully portrayed. His commitment to his work, his concentration in executing it, and his control onstage are phenomenal. His body language can say more than the words; his grand gestures can carry a point to the furthest reaches of a theatre; his voice can soar or plunge, caress or stab; his stance and poise onstage can command every eye; his presence onstage is always hypnotically spellbinding. His performances are enormously dynamic, and my own analysis of any of them came much later than when I was sitting in the theatre, for it would be unthinkable to start dissecting any of them as you watch. There is too much of an impact from the stage - direct, emotional, voluptuous, moving, daring, sensual, exhilarating - for that ever to happen. And, after all, it will never ever be the same again, not even tomorrow night.
But as with anything not run of the mill, not bland enough to be universally acceptable, not dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, opinion is bound to be divided. However, love him or hate him, with his magnetic authority onstage, his virtuosity and versatility, his theatrical flair and creativity, his consummate originality of approach, his astonishingly imaginative presentation of his roles, and the unreserved intensity of his towering yet disturbing performances, he is unquestionably one of the world's greatest stage actors in this, or surely any other age - a living legend.
2001, revised 2010