Once more into battle (with Mr Howard in his tent)

Alan Howard is a veteran of many a war. As Coriolanus, Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, Henry V and Antony to Glenda Jackson's Cleopatra, he has won and lost many a conflict. Now here he is, after all those kings, in.......Kings.

Christopher Logue's brutal and beautiful free translation of the first two books of Homer's Iliad has brought the royal pretender back into the footlights on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he is to be found in the gorgeous Dream Tent on the Meadows performing with Logue "perhaps the greatest anti-war document, which is nevertheless terribly excited about battle".

The much-lauded Shakespearean actor quit the stage at Stratford almost a decade ago and has spent the ensuing years doing everything from television mini-series to films (most memorably opposite Helen Mirren in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) and voice-overs.

Howard says: "I made a conscious decision to leave the stage because I had done so much at Stratford, where I had worked on and off for almost 20 years, that I felt I had to try and look at things from another point of view. There had been too many kings. In my years with the RSC, I played every king, with the exception of Henry IV and King Lear, from Henry V and VI to Richard III."

He is arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. His Coriolanus in the 1970s was widely regarded as the definitive performance. Bernard Levin wrote of it: "he made me understand Coriolanus like never before."

Last year, Howard gingerly dipped a toe in the theatre water by doing a season at Chichester, where he starred in the aptly-titled melodrama, The Silver King, and with Penny Downie in the coruscating Scenes from a Marriage, which then transferred to the West End. "I decided it was high time I got back on the old stage war-horse and I didn't fall off too badly, so I shall almost certainly be going back to either the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Royal National Theatre next year.

The trouble is, says Howard who is now 53, that "one is getting older and older and one worries that if one does go back to Stratford, say, then people could be terribly disappointed." He is also concerned about leaving his family for long periods to work on stage. He shares his life with the best-selling novelist Sally Beauman, and they have one son, James, who is now 16 years old.

A tall, bespectacled, man with floppy fair hair, Howard has the scholarly stoop of a schoolmaster. He thinks long and hard when answering questions. Words tumble out one minute and are hard to find, the next. He talks earnestly, sipping on a half pint of beer and smoking several cigarettes, tugging his hair, fixing you with a direct gaze, then pausing and addressing the floor or the table as he pursues those words which directly express his thoughts.

His constant digging for the truth of the matter consumes him with questions. Working on 65-year-old Logue's epic has been very special, he says. It has also given him pause for thought. "It is such a bloody good story with a powerful narrative theme and the language is so rich, so passionate. A lot of contemporary poetry is inaccessible to people today, but this seems to me to be absolutely alive and I think people will enjoy it as an exciting and thrilling story."

In Logue's words, Paris has "curly, girly hair", Ajax is "grim beneath his tan as Rommel after Alamein", and Odysseus "gazes at his big left toe" in an awkward moment. There is a wonderful joke, too. "How can a mortal make God laugh? Tell him his plans."

Howard says: "We are all neurotic post-Freudians now but this work contains the seeds of something which is much earlier than that - the directness of the way in which people confronted each other and the way in which they acted. Perhaps to some of us these are Stone Age values but maybe that's because the stones have got a bit eroded and deep down in all of us there is this hope that our values could be ideal.

"It is such a blistering depiction of conflict; it is the violence, I am afraid, which is in all of us. There will be enormous resonances for people, post-Gulf. But I think we must all be constantly reminded how frail, stupid and vulnerable we are. This is a classic piece, at which in a hundred years people will still be marvelling."

Greasepaint courses through Howard's veins. His father was the comic actor, Arthur Howard, whom a middle-aged generation will recall as the tetchy teacher Mr Pettigrew to Jimmy Edwards's headmaster in Whacko! His Scottish maternal grandparents were all actors. His great great grandfather played the gravedigger to Sir Henry Irving's Hamlet. Compton Mackenzie was his great uncle and his father's brother the tragic film star, Leslie Howard. "The Scottish side of my family was never very keen on the acting, so Mackenzie was dropped in favour of Compton by the actors." He remembers with pleasure childhood holidays spent in the Hebrides with his great uncle. "They have all gone now, but I come back as often as I can because I regard myself as almost Scottish and I can do a very good Scots accent."

Jackie McGlone

Glasgow Herald, 22.8.91

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