Alan waits for buzz ...

Alan Howard is one of the unsung hero breed of actors. Acclaimed by his profession, admired by the avid theatre-goer, he is not generally recognised by the general public.

But then, Alan Howard is not a drum-beater or a great showman-type actor. He is the quietly confident player, a man who turns in flawless performance after flawless performance. And he's going to be one of the major names of his generation.

He's also going to be one of the major names of the RSC season in Newcastle.

"My whole philosophy about theatre as opposed to television or films is that in the theatre you are in direct communication with your audience. There is that immediate buzz straight back. It doesn't matter if the part is a gentle, quiet one, or a ranter and raver, you can feel it just the same.

"And as soon as that buzz arrives, you know fine well that you have the guage of the part right there in your hands." But don't for one second be lulled into believing that years of experience make the empathy any the easier.

"It is as easy to flop after fifty years on the stage as it is after five months.

"I rather resent the attitude that a lot of television people have towards working in the medium. It is purely and simply a working exercise to them - a routine pattern which is interrupted by union squabbles, petty rows and the inevitability of knocking-off at a precise and certain time.

"If you're an actor, you just cannot switch off at five o'clock and immediately walk out into the street to become yourself - however ridiculous that sounds.

"Personally I get very little satisfaction from working in television. My best moments are on the stage."

That's an understatement. Alan Howard's rangy figure wanders along the back corridors of the theatre in Stratford, and is revered by junior members of the cast and staff.

To some, there's a legend that he takes a lot of getting used to - a rather unapproachable character. Speaking personally, he's not an easy man to interview, but he is a free and amiable talker. A man with firm opinions and a deep sense of fairness.

He takes his time to answer questions, too. He leans across a desk with his head supported on one hand and stares at the surface of the wood while he formulates an answer. The silences inbetween are deafening. And then, out comes the beautifully turned final opinions.

Off-stage he wears metal-rimmed glasses. On stage contact lenses. Except for the brief opening to Henry V, which is in modern dress.

"He's a superb character to play. Quite sensational. Think of all that bluster, that dynamism - but with the humour and the sympathy, too. The way that he tours round his troops on the night before the battle is a very moving experience. But to balance that you have the noble speeches and the scenes with the tennis balls and the gloves.

"Then there's Coriolanus - one more giant role. He's completely dominated by his mother, and the complexities of that relationship are completely awe-making."

I mentioned that my overpowering experience came fully when I realised that the tension between Coriolanus and Volumnia was created without either of them touching each other once - "Yes, usually she's a very tactile, clinging person, full of gestures. Here, she's restrained, but vehement. It makes it far more believable for us all."

Add to all that the Henry VI trilogy, and you'll realise why no one would be surprised if Alan Howard crumpled in a small heap after the Newcastle season. Five major roles in five very long plays. It isn't any picnic.

"No, it isn't, but I don't think I'd be very happy if I wasn't both accepting and fulfilling this challenge. It's a major season for me, and while I'll admit that it is very tiring, it has also had enormous rewards.

"Yes, sure, I've enjoyed it - and tes, I suppose it is a type of masochistic enjoyment, but I also happen to believe that with the direction we've had this year, we've given some great theatre.

"I'm personally looking forward to the Newcastle season very much indeed, because there one gets genuine theatregoers who want to see drama. Here in Stratford I sometimes get the impression that audiences are doing us a favour by turning up.

"Being on the tourist route is rather disconcerting. It makes one feel that one is almost a goldfish in a bowl rather than an actor trying to convey a mood from a subject.

"I really do appreciate schools audiences - one of the reasons is that they've studied, and therefore often have some understanding of the play. Their rapt attention is marvellous - and the applause from them is so often the most uplifting that you get."

Phil Penfold

Evening Chronicle (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) 27.1.78.


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