During the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies, Alan Howard acting Shakespeare was a British theatrical given. From his 1966 Royal Shakespeare Company debut as Orsino in Twelfth Night, through to Peter Brook's landmark Dream, the Henry plays, and Coriolanus, Howard looked ready to outpace the likes of McKellen and Jacobi in the Bardic sweepstakes. Then the stage actor went quiet in the Eighties, shifting his attention to film and television only to re-emerge at Chichester and at the National in the last few years.
If all eyes are on him once more as he prepares for his first Macbeth, the attention extends beyond the sheer daring of opening the Scottish play on April Fool's Day. Macbeth marks Howard's first Shakespearean foray since his RSC engagements as Richard II and III in 1980; it is a belated reunion of the actor and the dramatist on whom he made his career. Or, to use Howard's preferred metaphor, it is an overdue assault on a fresh set of dramatic peaks.
"I had always considered Macbeth to be at the younger end of the next mountain range," the actor, 55 years old, makes clear early on in discussion, a beard still in mid-growth. "I purposefully decided not to do Shakespeare for a bit; I even did not do theatre for quite a long time because I had done so much on the trot. I thought it would be a good trick just to leave it for a bit and then start, really, on the next range of roles."
Not that Howard envisioned quite so prolonged a hiatus. "That was not really intended; like most of these things, it just sort of happened." What was intended was time out with his family - his second wife, novelist Sally Beauman and their 18-year-old son - alongside an altered career focus that might shift the actor's own performance style.
"I wanted to try and learn something about film, about inverting the process of putting the voice out that far and instead actually taking it in and in and in." In the end, he continues, the break proved quite therapeutic. "I hope I am less daunted by Shakespeare now and yet just as bowled over by it. One might have found a way of not getting tripped up so much in one's own complications in order to present the true complication of what he is driving at."
Howard's spell away from the theatre did lead to other work: he was Helen Mirren's paramour in Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and appeared in projects as varied as Nick Ward's low-budget Dakota Road and, on television, John Le Carré's A Perfect Spy and The Double Helix, with Jeff Goldblum. What the period never did was lead to the high profile Hollywood work enjoyed by contemporaries as Anthony Hopkins, Albert Finney and Alan Bates.
All of which, Howard comments wryly, suits him just fine. "I was never going to be a kind of Meryl Streep figure. If anything like that had by some extraordinary chance occurred, I think I would have been very worried. I knew the kind of work I would be doing would be maybe some good character roles; it was not going to be zonking great cinema heroes. They do not exist really for an actor like me and certainly not in this country so there was no danger of that, and I knew I was not going to be grabbed by the crowd over on the West Coast."
His own thespian ancestry notwithstanding - his great-grandfather, Edward Compton, made his name in John O' Keeffe's play Wild Oats in a part Howard himself did for the RSC in 1976 - the actor admits to a distaste for the standard touchstones of fame. "I thought for a long time and maybe still now I slightly resent that you can do really terrific work in the theatre but until you get the Hollywood picture, you are not on the map."
Not for him "the Stratford Syndrome, where some huge movie director would come, and you were then whisked off. I always thought that was a bit unfair: why shouldn't you be known as a very good theatre actor? It didn't mean you were not as good or better or any different from a good film actor. Of course," he adds, "it would be wonderful to be very good at doing both."
Howard's family offered instances of both types of career. His father, Arthur was best known as a comedy actor who spent 18 months on the West End in No Sex Please, We're British. His uncle Leslie - 16 years his father's senior - was the matinee-idol, star of Pygmalion, a play Howard has acted on two occasions, most recently with near-manic ferocity last year in his National Theatre debut. ("He's fairly monstrous," Howard says of Shaw's most famous elocutionist, Professor Higgins. "He laughs one minute and screams his head off the next.")
How, initially, did Howard gravitate toward Shakespeare? School productions offered up roles from Celia in As You Like It through to Oswald, Demetrius, and Autolycus. Then, too, there was an almost unconscious desire to forge a career different from his fore-bears. "I suppose, as always happens in families, if somebody has kind of made a big success somewhere, an element of you says, 'Well, I won't do that. In order to do my bit, I'm going to do something else.' "
Once the RSC beckoned, Howard found himself caught up "in the idea of big companies," and the organisation's own momentum suited his personality. "I am not a great designer of projects as such; I do rather put it a bit in the lap of the gods. When people say, 'what parts would you like to play?', even when they're quite interesting people, my mind goes completely blank."
Howard's non-Shakespearean work for the RSC included the German academic co-opted by the Nazis in C.P.Taylor's Good, a play which took him to Broadway in 1982, and, in 1985, the West End transfer of Stephen Poliakoff's Breaking the Silence, playing a Russian-Jewish inventor.
But the Bard continues to be his yardstick, and Howard now faces the famously difficult challenge of a distilled play whose supernatural associations have been known to hover unhappily over both its off-stage and on-stage life. Nevertheless, the actor speaks calmly of the task, even allowing the play's title to be spoken in his presence. "There is a domestic intimacy as well as a colossal outside area: those two things are in the play, and one has to try and honour them both. It is as if Shakespeare is trying to wind us up to become witnesses of this terrible thing that happens: he doesn't let you off the hook for a second.
The Times, 30.3.93