Doing plays the Howard way

Actor Alan Howard is concerned that theatre is not reaching a wide enough audience. Currently in the Almeida's world premiere of Edward Albee's The Play About The Baby, he tells Tim Palmer how things may change. Alan Howard is not an actor to let his audience off lightly. From his most memorable screen appearance, where he was served up roasted and naked for dinner in Peter Greenaway's film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, to a recent revival of Waiting for Godot, he loves to get his teeth into something really meaty.

Frances de la Tour, Rupert Penry Jones, Alan Howard and Zoe Waites in 'The Play About The Baby'

Not just for himself, either. Howard, who lives in Upper Holloway, is shrewd enough to realise that theatre is not as relevant to many people as it once was, and believes that what is required are more extraordinary plays, more theatrical events to capture the imagination of young people who are reluctant to go to the theatre.

"For young people, I think the theatre has become a moribund form. It is difficult to persuade them that there's something going on. Is it like saying that because my dad liked scotch, I'm not going to drink it whether I like it or not? One fears that because their parents went to the theatre, some young people wouldn't be seen dead there."

It is lucky that he is currently performing in exactly the sort of play that should stir up some excitement outside the usual circles.

For London to stage the world premiere of any work by a major American playwright would be event enough. For a small theatre in Islington to stage the premiere of a play by Edward Albee, America's greatest living playwright and the man responsible for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is even more remarkable. That the Almeida decided to give The Play About The Baby its first airing during its month-long sojourn in the tiny Hereford and Worcester town of Malvern really is something else altogether.

But it isn't just the sense of occasion that has got Alan Howard excited. He clearly believes that he is taking part in something a bit special. It is, he says, a play ahead of its time and as exciting as the first performances of Waiting for Godot.

He explained: "I just read it and it was one of the most extraordinary reads I have had in a long time. It was a real page-turner. It is the quality of the writing, the quality of the stagecraft. It is poetical, it is musical - all the things one dreams of."

These are not the idle words of an actor who wants to plug his latest show. This is someone who is very, very excited about what he is doing - even if he isn't exactly sure what it is supposed to be about. It is one of those plays which both demand and defy analysis. There are four characters - an old couple and a young couple - and a baby. Beyond that you are probably best left to work it out for yourself. There will be a lot of whirring brain cells in Islington over the next couple of weeks as audiences hunt the message in this elliptical, compelling piece.

And that doesn't just go for the audiences. Howard has also been puzzling over its many nuances.

"Everything makes sense in the moment in which it takes place. Each sum adds up for each second but if you go through it again you have got a very complex equation, and whether you will be able to make it pan out or not I don't know," he said.

Not that he thinks an audience wants it all spelt out for them. "I think it would be wrong if there was some absolute answer at the end of it. There is just a better question. The important thing is how long it stays with people and what it awakens in them. In a way it is about the issue of people being obsessed with things adding up and what happens when they don't."

Although Howard has done almost everything worth doing on stage, from the pioneering social realism of the Wesker trilogy in the 1950s to countless award-winning shows at the National and in the West End, he hasn't made the same impact on screen.

The sort of work he likes doing, low-budget films which cost and earn peanuts, often never see the light of day. His unforgettable appearance - and disappearance - as the Lover in that Greenaway film is the one role that really stands out.

"That was another amazing script to read. I thought if he [Peter Greenaway] gets one sixteenth of what he's written on film he will have made a pretty extraordinary piece. I think he did a lot more than that - but there's not a lot of stuff like that," he added.

Which brings us back to the problems of British theatre. Where people don't mind being subjected to mediocre TV programmes or mediocre films, put them in a theatre and they will be a great deal less forgiving. What it needs, says Howard, are more events but there simply aren't enough of them. "There is something so huge about a theatrical event. I do know that people can have a lot of bad experiences in the theatre, but you can have bad experiences with other things. But when the theatre is good, it is better than anything else, because it is not plastic, and what it did to you can never be proved. You will be different, so will the players, so will the situation and you will get a totally different hit on it each time. That should be enough to keep you going back," he said.

Tim Palmer

Highbury and Islington Express, 4.9.1998.

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