Will's Marathon Man

In his dressing room at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Alan Howard after the mightiest performance as Coriolanus: wrapped in a short white bathrobe he was courteous, dazed. He defines these coming-to, post-performance moments as vegetable time. This week's The South Bank Show homes in on the man who has been called the best Shakespearian actor alive today. Also on view: little spine-tinglers from his Henry V, Henry VI and Coriolanus.

Alan Howard, a friendly, chatty man, is cool before the cameras. He pops in his contact lenses, makes up, dresses up, blows his nose and moves off to storm that well-known breach once more. He knows whatever he says won't give away the mystery of what makes a lion of an actor. When the talking is done, Alan Howard just is.

Alan Howard

Alan comes from a nearly ancestral theatre family, dating back to the 18th century. His great-grandfather was actor Edward Compton. Howard's father is comedian Arthur Howard. His mother was actress Jean Compton Mackenzie, his great-aunt the legendary Fay Compton. The even more legendary film star,Leslie Howard, was his uncle. Yet, with all this barnstorming in his blood, Howard really came to acting through school. Ardingly, in Sussex, brought Howard to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare brought Howard to the stage. It's almost as if he relies on the Bard to help him get his head together. In return, Howard does his best for Will.

Unpacking Shakespeare is Howard's continuing fascination. He says the Royal Shakespeare Company read through Coriolanus slowly for two weeks to dispel hard-held conceptions. "This play is just tipped iinto our laps. How do you cope?," Howard wonders. "Go on, cope. Shakespeare doesn't conclude things. He keeps asking question after question. If we're really honest we keep ourselves open and questioning about something that happens to us, someone we meet. If we don't, we're tied-up and middle-aged by the time we're 35."

Howard, who is 40, lives with journalist Sally Beauman. They have a three-year-old son, Jamie. During the season, Jamie stays with his father in Stratford while Sally Beauman works in London for half of every week.

Howard says they both find this a strain but when they meet there is a three-hour chat and argument and bambam and all that, which is terrific.

"I get a bit tired but it's a good price to pay for tiredness. One sees things, is aware of things which are Shakespeare-given." Asked how Sally likes taking second place to Shakespeare, Howard replies she's pretty good at Shakespeare herself.

Lean and tempered with all those swordfights and fallings-about, Howard declares he never keeps fit by pattern. "I do the plays," he said with feeling. "Rehearsing all day and playing at night is a lot of miles to walk. They say a performance is equivalent to a minor car accident in terms of shock."

The damp Warwickshire air does little good to Alan Howard, who rather hankers after his new London house in Holloway. He catches cold, catarrh lingers. But, as with most actors, his best cure is, as they say in the profession, Dr. Stage. "You forget illness on the stage, although it can come zapping back at you in the wings." When Howard had intestinal flu during A Midsummer Night's Dream in Cardiff, he did a speech from the top of the gallery, got out of view, threw up and went back.

He finds learning lines difficult. "Lines is hell." He is never quite sure why he undertakes so many plays at a trot. In the present RSC season he has been on nearly every night in Henry V, Henry VI (played over three evenings in three parts) and Coriolanus. When there are matinees, he works twice a day.

He has no system for remembering these marathons. He just has to sit down and learn and it doesn't get any easier. "If I 'go', which I sometimes do, I'm not bad at finding another word which doesn't radically alter the sense. Sometimes I talk absolute nonsense, iambic knitting."

All skilful actors, and there are a good many around, must boast technique, diversity, stamina. Perhaps what brings drama critics to strew words like stupendous all over the stalls after an Alan Howard first night is that Howard seems to have taken it upon himself to represent our current age of anxieties.

Not for him an iron Henry V or a Coriolanus who is flat-out vain. Even Howard's physical characteristics can contradict each other. As he exists grandly, Howard's sandy hair can bob gently like Rowlf the Muppet's ears. His most braggart stance is often accompanied by more than a touch of the shakes . Doubting beautifully, never nobler than when uncertain, Howard proves Shakespeare the most modern playwright we have.

Alix Coleman

TV Times, 28.1.1978.