The day in the life of Alan Howard (alias Prince Hal and Henry V)

The most gruelling acting marathon in the English theatre was staged at the Aldwych in London yesterday. It began at 10.30 am and ended more than 12 hours later. First came Shakespeare's 'Henry IV Part One'; 'Part Two' came in the afternoon, and 'Henry V' in the evening. The Royal Shakespeare Company's actors were on stage for 9½ hours. The greatest burden was on the man who began the day as Prince Hal and ended it as Henry V - a 38-year-old actor called Alan Howard. This is the story of his longest day.

7.30 am. Howard rises:

It is earlier than his usual time, and after just six hours' sleep. The evening before he played Prince Hal, had a pint and rushed off home to Maida Vale, worrying about an irritated throat. Breakfast is substantial (bacon and eggs, black pudding, mushrooms and tomatoes) because it is the last proper meal he will have until the ordeal is over.

He arrives at the theatre early, at 9.30 so he can find a parking space. Actors are not normally bothered by such prosaic things, but they do not normally perform in the morning. There is already a queue for returned tickets on a fine sunny morning.

There is not much make-up for the part, and he doesn't need to touch his unruly straw-coloured mop. He hasn't trained, but he looks as though there was no need to: he is a lean six-footer, not a graceful mover, but direct and alert. He has to change his glasses for contact lenses. Sometimes Howard looks confused, but that's usually because he can't see.

10.30 am. Henry IV, Part One begins.

Howard is on stage, dimly lit, as the play opens, with the king, his father, complaining about his raffish behaviour, and wishing that his rival, Hotspur, were the son and heir. Howard's first major speech comes soon after, offering a clue to the nobler character that he will develop.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok'd humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun.....

Alan Howard is playing the part of a young man who is playing a part - drinking too much, being accomplice in a robbery, and ignoring his father's court; certainly not the customary training for kingship. But by the end of this play, towards lunchtime, he takes up his heavy fighting sword with the German steel blade (the British Steel Corporation could not meet the width specification) and kills Hotspur. "The audience is pacing it quite well," says Howard, smiling.

1.35 pm, the play ends:

Howard leaves the theatre for the Marquis of Anglesea near the Opera House in Bow Street. On his way he passes the stage door of the Strand Theatre where No Sex Please, We're British is playing, and among the cast is Arthur Howard, his father. His mother was an actress, and Alan was conceived during a period when both were working at Cheltenham Rep. Lunch is a pint of Young's bitter in a straight glass and a sausage - hardly a meal fit for a king.

3 pm. Henry IV, Part Two begins:

The easiest part of his day - he doesn't actually set foot on stage until 3.30 and the play is dominated by the vast figure of Brewster Mason's Falstaff; yet, by around opening time, Prince Hal is king. In a fine, taut scene with the old dying king, played by Emrys James, he crowns himself. It is difficult to play because both come to it cold, but they work well together, constantly testing each other with new moves and interpretations. They started rehearsal more than a year ago, and only recently had the pattern of the scene become predictable.

The sound of Howard's voice is becoming familiar now. It is a tenor which becomes more baritone as Hal grows older, clear and capable of dealing with the verse. Howard is aware that a rapidly developing cold might narrow the range of the voice, and maybe his colleagues are too, but it retains a bell-like clarity to the audience, which fills a house that was sold out for this whole day's work weeks ago. But the physical strain begins to tell when he has to carry James off at the end of the scene.

At the end of the play, Henry V, clothed in martial robes of gold to establish his new role, rejects his past. "I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers." he tells Falstaff.

6.10 Curtain call:

Howard slips out to Luigi's restaurant for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine. Howard adopts a nonchalant air. "I try to cope by being as ordinary as possible and by talking to whoever is around as casually as I can."

8pm Henry V:

Just before the start of the evening performance Howard puts on a tracksuit and takes his place on stage among the rest of the company, who are also dressed casually. These are the men referred to by the Chorus in the play's opening speech as "flat unraised spirits" who are to work within "this wooden O."

The actors are presented as ordinary men transformed by the theatre itself into Englishmen and Frenchmen, nobles and fighting men. And the playing of this scene symbolises the interpretation by both Howard and the director Terry Hands of a play which is normally regarded as little more than a miltarist tract.

The king is played as an actor, too. As the performance reaches its climax it is clear that Howard's Henry understands that without the trappings of kingship no one will actually believe that he is a king. So he must play a role ; only then will he convince himself that he is king. Howard's Henry V is human, not divine.

The interpretation grows on the audience, absorbing them finally. "You could sense the concentration, and they hardly felt the need to demonstrate their response," Howard says. Both actors and audience seem to know by now that merely to have stayed the course is remarkable, and it draws them together.

Howard's problem at 9.00 pm is to conserve his physical resources. If he drives himself too enthusiastically too early in Henry V, he will be drained before the long scene in the night before Agincourt.

11.10. Last quick change:

Howard has paced the evening well, but he still feels very tired. So how does he do it? By instinct mainly. "It's a mental problem, making the right alarm calls in your head." After 9½ hours of acting a lot of alarms have been rung. Too many for Howard to be able to celebrate his achievement.

Yesterday's was the last performance at the Aldwych. Shortly, Henry V goes to New York, and later tours the continent, and it will be seen outside London this summer. No one at the Royal Shakespeare Company has told Howard what they plan for him after that, but last night he did not especially want to talk about the future. "I just want to relax," he said, "as though I were in a nice warm bath." But he would not get that until he got home.

Stephen Fay

The Sunday Times, 21.3.76

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