Howard's way is an electric acting style

Many people have stirring memories of Alan Howard's performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Newcastle Theatre Royal.

In the 70s he played the lead role in Hamlet, Henry V, Henry IV Parts I and II, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, Richard III and Coriolanus, by all accounts wowing audiences with his electric acting style.

"It was always a great gig going to Newcastle, especially with the RSC," recalls the rangy 58-year old.

"Being up there for five or six weeks you got a chance to put your roots down a bit."

He hasn't acted with the RSC for a decade but has devoted his energy over the last few years to the other big subsidised company, the London-based Royal National Theatre. He is currently playing the Player King in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.

It seems a touch ironic that his return to the Theatre Royal should be in a play which is famous for having fun at Shakespeare's expense. But despite all the great jokes, he regards it as a serious piece of work dealing "with all those great imponderables: 'Why are we here?', 'What are we doing?' and 'What is death?' They are just as relevant as they ever were."

He had seen the original production in 1967, which made Tom Stoppard's name virtually overnight, but had needed to read the play to refresh his memory. Having done so, he was more confident than its author of its enduring merit.

"Tom was worried at rehearsals and kept saying he was terrified it was going to appear dated. Nobody else thought it would, particularly the way Matthew Francis (director) was doing it. It seemed particularly current, and I think it will do in 30 years' time."

In 1980 Alan Howard decided, after years of treading the boards, to concentrate on a screen career. "I particularly fancied telly films. I'd done an awful lot of theatre and had done pretty well all there was to do for the RSC for an actor my age.

"The other thing was that I wanted to be around while my son was growing up." (Alan is married to Sally Beauman, author of the epic novel Destiny). "The RSC is pretty hard on your other half. You tend to be working all day and all night.

"I actually did want to be at home more often and thought film would enable me to do it." With Howard junior away at university and able to take care of himself, Alan is back to his old routine with a vengeance. This production was in Ireland recently and after touring England heads for Bulgaria. "Actually," he says, "I have performed there before - about 25 years ago, in Sofia."

Cinemagoers will tend to ask, "Alan who?" Despite the years devoted to film, he doesn't have a massive screen profile, although he did endure a nasty fate in Peter Greenaway's tongue-twisting thriller The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.

The theatre, though, is the place to see him. Straight after this production he will head the cast in Sir Peter Hall's new productions of Sophocles' The Oedipus Plays, which will open in the ancient amphitheatre at Epidaurus, Greece. That has to be the biggest challenge of any actor's career.

And he would like to return to the RSC before too long, now that he is reaching a suitable age for another cast of great leading characters.

David Whetstone

The Newcastle Journal, 1.5.96.

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