The Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed productions of Richard II and Richard III are just about to open at the Aldwych Theatre in London. Anne Gregg was granted a rare interview with the talented actor who plays both rôles.
It is one of those fresh spring evenings when you're suddenly aware of the sky still light after seven. A massed choir of starlings gathers in the crevices of Newcastle's elegant old Theatre Royal, as if to entertain the waiting queues. But such animated anticipation ripples through the line, it's doubtful if a starling passing round the hat would earn a cursory glance.
For the play is the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of Richard III, due to open in November, together with Richard II, at the Aldwych Theatre in London. The star of both shows - there's simply no other way to put it - is the current lion of the Shakespeare stage, Alan Howard.
Peter Ustinov once said that star quality is the ability of an actor to command attention even when he isn't doing anything. From the moment Howard makes his shambling entrance as the crippled hunchback, leg in irons, you cannot take your eyes off him. There's the piercing resonance of the voice, the intense cast of expression, the economy of movement, the deft fingering of lines that shouldn't be slithered over (Be obdurate, he instructs two rather thicko soldiers who stare uncomprehendingly. A look straight at the audience. A sigh. Do not give in. Light dawns. The audience giggles.)
It's no more than one expects of a talented actor. But there is also ingredient X: the great actor's brilliant knack of getting not only into the skin of a character, but into his very soul.
The soul of this one is decidedly murky. Richard's acid wit, his cleverness, his twisted sexuality, his black temper, his downright rotteness are all mirrored, at times in quick succession with those lightning changes of expression that often mark the mentally disturbed. For the flicker of a second the spirit of Olivier hovers but only because the Now is the winter of our discontent speech has so often been aped. This Richard is totally Howard's.
Director Terry Hands's production really lets the audience have it. The play is played, as it was in Shakespeare's day, for laughs, as a kind of awful horror comic, with the Gloucester-Ripper-by-proxy as the arch villain everyone loves to hate. Yet in spite of the sick humour sliding into sickly pathos and revulsion as the toll of butchery rises, the extraordinary thing is that Howard manages also to invoke pity. One of the most moving moments of the play is when Richard, seeing the crown at last within his grasp, practises walking straight to prepare for his coronation with such seemingly painful effort that real beads of sweat break upon his brow - though the sweat is probably more a result of the cumulative strain of the performance, which becomes progressively more athletic.
At one o'clock the following afternoon, it's no surprise to find him a little low-key. Tallish, lean and all in blue - cords, denim shirt, suede waistcoat - he appears hesitantly at the stage door on cue for lunch. The accessories look ominously protective: an endless python of a scarf coiled about his neck; very dark glasses. Before we can depart, fellow actor Edwin Richfield calls him to account for failing to show up at a soccer match between the RSC and a local Italian restaurant. "It's a recurring event in Newcastle," Howard explains, "the RSC always get trounced!"
Duly settled in a less patronised trattoria (not the winners of the match), he is courteous in an absent-minded way and slightly nervous. Other writers have remarked upon the gaping chasms of silence that yawn disconcertingly when you ask him a question. They weren't exaggerating. Sometimes the pauses last for a full thirty seconds, and it takes a degree of cool and much lip-biting not to rush into the breach to help him out.
The introvert actor who pales into anonymity off-stage? Hardly. That diagnosis would be neither accurate nor fair. Alan Howard comes across more as a man reluctant to make trivial pronouncements, yet somehow unwilling - or unable, within the set-piece of an interview - to part with his unfinished thought processes. His reticence may also be a case of spent batteries. "I'm sorry, I'm not being very bright. I'll wake up in a minute", he apologises good-naturedly into his spaghetti.
Ordinary glasses soon replace the sunspecs and reveal rather penetrating eyes. He is, in fact, extremely short-sighted and wears contact lenses on stage. With thinning red hair and pale skin, he isn't quite as dashing close-to, but there is something undeniably attractive about him. Perhaps it's the voice which, even when dropped to a whisper and asking for the salt, has an almost hypnotic quality. He does look tired, though. After Lear, Richard III is one of the biggest and most exhausting rôles in Shakespeare.
Having chalked up the awesome record of playing the star rôle in all eight plays of the demanding history cycle, sometimes performing two alternately, for the first time in a long while, he's beginning to come up for air. Since he joined the RSC in 1966, he has had his head down and his sights set high, and in fifteen years littered with leading parts and glittering prizes - in '68 "Most Promising Actor" and, within a decade, three "Best Actor" awards - he's taken little time out to do other things. As he admits, "The RSC can rather spoil you because you get to do extremely good work. As a result, you only want to do work in other media that's as good in its own way."
His playing of Cragoe in Thames Television's Cover series earlier this year divided his admirers into two camps: those who relished his stylised portrayal of the cold-blooded spy-chief and appreciated the timbre of author Philip Mackie's amusing chess game: and those who felt Howard might have chosen a better vehicle for his toe-dipping into television. Howard is defensive. "At second reading it becomes more absorbing - I think it might fare better if seen again." He wanted to do it because "I'm intrigued by the rôle-playing that goes on with people in positions of power. With somebody like Cragoe you wonder what is truth, where does it begin and end? Doing Shakespeare leads, you inevitably come across power: it's the eternal conflict between the public image and the private man - greatly magnified of course."
Although by no means a political animal - "I'm too much of a theatre person" - he finds himself irritated by many of the current bigwigs in government today. "I struggle desperately to detect the crack and see what's going on inside the shell, but the fashion is for public people not to show they're in any way vulnerable, which most of the time makes them very boring."
At 44, Alan Howard is in a position of not inconsiderable power himself. He affects not to acknowledge it but, apart from Ian McKellen, there is really no other contender for the RSC crown. Self-blinkered to the implications of stardom, he insists he just plods quietly along. "You'd be dead if you didn't approach it that way. You don't know quite what your reputation is because your whole concentration is tied up in getting on with the job."
There have been other television offers since Cover, but with a schedule already sewn up until well into 1982, he finds he can't just drop everything at short notice for a few weeks' run of work. While his motives can be appreciated, many people feel it a pity that his talents don't get a wider showing. He is aware, however, that he is somewhat larger than life on the small screen. "I'm given to over-expressing sometimes, even in my stage acting. Mannerisms are something the critics like to get their oar in about from time to time, yet it's the sort of point they'd never make about a painter who develops his own style, using brush strokes that are unquestionably his. An actor uses his voice in the same way, exploring its range, texture and so on. It can be a very expressive instrument - yet one that will appeal to some and not to others. Anyway, I think there are times when you should be larger-than-life on television - really smash into people's living rooms!"
There is a much quoted story that when Alan Howard was a small boy he was asked what he would like to be when he grew up and he replied "King Arthur". Told that King Arthur was dead, he said, "Then I shall pretend". He vows he will throw up if he reads this again, but by his own admission it is "unfortunately perfectly true". What's more, it's abundantly clear that from the beginning his ambition has been not just to be an actor, but to be top dog. When at school he made his debut as Celia in As You Like It. He felt the only thing wrong with his performance was that he should have been playing Rosalind. "I didn't like the guy who was playing Rosalind and we used to fight in the wings and then come on with our tits out of joint and our hair all over the place. I didn't like the guy who was playing Oliver either, so I wouldn't hold hands with him. I was very bad."
But he persevered, graduated to the rôle of Autolycus in A Winter's Tale, in which he thought he was quite good, and in due course proceeded to rep. all with minimum encouragement from his family. This was despite - or rather because - of the fact that both his parents, Arthur Howard and Jean Compton Mackenzie, were actors themselves. Indeed, on either side of the family the ground was artistically fertile. Writer Sir Compton Mackenzie was a great-uncle, actress Fay Compton his great-aunt, and his father's eldest brother was the famous screen idol Leslie Howard. "Leslie's son Ronald was also an actor, but because both he and my father looked like Leslie I think they suffered as a result. It might have affected me had I gone into films rather than the theatre. Celebrity creatures can create a problem in families. There's often a dependence, a basking in reflected glory, especially if you're in the same line as they are.
Although comparisons have never been made in Alan Howard's case, recognition did not come instantly. "A very famous old actor - I can't remember who - once said 'Give me a good actor and in ten years I'll make him a leading man'. It took me ten years and I spent a lot of time out of work."
The major key-change in his career came in 1975 when after a whirl around the world with Peter Brook's triumphal Midsummer Night's Dream, he played the lead in an off-beat play called The Bewitched - which was: it flopped. Against strong opposition, director Terry Hands cast him as Hal in Henry IV, 1 and 2, and Henry V. The 'againsts' felt he was too old (at 37), and there was also, again, the shadow of Olivier. But There is a tide in the affairs of men that, taken at the flood, leads on to greatness, and this was Alan Howard's. Terry Hands says, "Alan found more in Henry V than, with respect, anyone has ever found." The three plays won him his first 'Best Actor' award.
That Howard's talent is exceptional is undisputed. However, pinning down the precise qualities which make it so is not easy - Terry Hands who has worked with him since 1969, believes it is his ability to be both threatening and sensitive. "To be truly frightening on stage is something few actors achieve. It was this that I first noticed in Alan and it was very exciting. The gentleness came later, and the combination of the two, this power to be aggressive and hard, yet with an astonishingly tender line, is unique to him."
And then, of course, there is The Voice. Terry Hands reckons it is the richest in tone and pitch he has ever come across: "An outstanding range of octaves." Leading RSC actor Richard Pascoe, who plays the ill-fated Duke of Clarence in Richard III describes it as "Marvellous, booming, almost bionic-man. And the infuriating thing is nothing he does - smoking non-stop, for example - ever seems to affect it."
If there is a whisper of regret among his colleagues it is that Alan Howard is a difficult man to get near, both in performance and personally; just as there is a lack of warmth from the glow of his technical brilliance, the off-duty Howard is sometimes unapproachable, "a very private man" who rarely lingers after the house-lights have gone up to have drinks with the lads, preferring to be at home - if home is within reach. In Newcastle it isn't, but whether in London or in borrowed houses in Stratford, it is shared with journalist Sally Beauman and their six-year-old son, James. His early marriage to Stephanie Beaumont broke up, but it's apparent that this present relationship is a very going concern. Although guarded on the subject - you can tell it's tricky ground when there's a purposeful drag on the cigarette holder - he wholeheartedly confirms that his small family is a fundamental pivot. "I have a very happy private life. The only problem is, I spend too much time away on tour. That's going to happen less and less If I have anything to do with it, because it isn't fair on any of us."
He met Sally Beauman when she went to interview him for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine while he was playing Hamlet at Stratford (as a production this didn't quite come off - a sore point). "It sort of developed from there" is all he will say about what must be one of the longest interviews on record!
On the whole, he considers he is neither easy nor difficult to live with. "I'm not bad. I have a temper, we both do. But I think temper is fairly healthy. Sometimes I sulk appallingly - that's awful." Usually it's when he isn't working - not that that occurs in other than short bursts: then he listens to very loud 18th century music and wishes he could garden or cook or have some nice "naturally creative activity" to ease his frustration, but the wish seems too wistful to be converted into action.
"Staying up late and talking" is one of his greatest pleasures, and actor Norman Rodway, one of the few close friends privileged to share it. Rodway says of Howard, "He has a marvellous frivolous side of him that you really don't see until after 3 a.m.
By all accounts, there is also a kind side. When newcomers arrive at the RSC, Howard is known to be easy, open and generous. Clearly he cares about giving young people the right encouragement, for in a rare moment of fluent animation, he waxes eagerly about his involvement with the universities where he occasionally goes to lecture, and it irks him that students are taught an over-complicated approach to Shakespeare and drama generally. "I despair of how it's still judged and assessed in such a two-dimensional way, on paper instead of in performance. Of course, the powers-that-be don't like you to say it's meant to be acted not read, and yet I get so many letters from schoolkids who say they hated Shakespeare until they came to see us in action."
Now that Howard is well and truly centre of the Shakespeare stage, the obvious question is, where does he go from here? You get the impression he knows it's something he ought to consider and keeps putting off. He rambles a little about more hope for actors when tv's fourth channel materialises, and talks of wanting to develop a kind of television rep company and do "a really big project that would take a long time and have the feeling of collaboration you get in the RSC", but it's all rather vague. Enthusiasm rekindles when he gets back to the present and turns to the subject of Newcastle audiences - "They're wonderful to play to - keener, quicker on the uptake, ready to go along with breaking barriers. I always love to come here."
When Terry Hands says Howard "uses up so much of himself on stage he naturally has to protect his personal persona" it explains a great deal about him. Sadly, it is only with the end of our conversation in sight that he has visibly begun to relax. His rather ill-tempered hair is still a bit fraught, mainly because he runs his hands through it overmuch - but he is at last sitting upright, elbows on the table, his gaze steady. He takes in good part my rather rueful observation that he'll never make The Parkinson Show because they couldn't edit out the pauses, and admits he finds it difficult to spout to order. "I often wonder how a journalist will ever be able to make anything out of what I've said."
Outside, as the sunlight hits us like a sledgehammer, I politely protest at the suggestion he walks with me to the station. "No, no. I need some fresh air," he insists, sniffing it in the manner of Mr Magoo. "It's a lovely day." Perhaps this is just to make up for the hard going over lunch, but it's a nice gesture.
Good Housekeeping Magazine, December 1981.