All Hal let loose

Liking an actor is quite different from liking a particular performance. There are some actors, and Alan Howard is one, whom I would go to see in anything. That sounds like matinee-idol talk, but in fact this conviction about Howard as an actor only hardened with his performance as Henry V in Terry Hands's production, which opens at the Aldwych tonight. I missed his Stratford Hamlet six years ago, and though his Bartholomew Cokes in Ben Jonson's comedy was impressive, it made less of an impression than Sebastian Shaw. His Achilles for John Barton, with its heavy Marat-Sadism, its sultry homo-eroticism, was a startling tour-de-force. But it was with his star performance in Peter Brook's Dream that those qualities in his acting which now seem indispensable came into sharp focus.

What Howard brought to the Dream and brings to Henry V is a rare intellectual poise. It's not that he is a cerebral actor, an escapee from Academe, for the engagement of his mind emerges in performance with a warm affectionate passion. It's nothing new, of course, for an actor to seek truth and realism in the impression he creates of live emotion. But with Howard you are always aware of the mind working behind the lines, engaged in the actual process of thought which the language at that moment reflects, seeking therefore a kind of rational truth about the character he portrays, (just as what people say in life is only a partial guide to what they mean and are) a truth which is not a momentary definition, but an evolving and inconsistent experience.

When Howard, in character, says something on stage, "then I must have meant it at that moment," he explains. "But I don't mean it forever. Very often a soliloquy in Shakespeare is regarded, specially from the academic point of view, as a revelation of what that person is for the entire play. I'm not sure that that's true. It seems to me that soliloquies are just this extraordinary thing of a man or a woman going over certain events and coming to kinds of conclusion for that moment. And we the audience see, God, yes, he's got that."

The Breach

There are many kinds of acting and many kinds of theatre. In Shakespeare's time, as in Brecht's, the theatre was at the centre of the political arena, a seething mass of ideas often earning censorship. But the most exciting theatre happens when the minds of the characters on stage seem to be alive, when we are convinced that between them author and actors have brought into existence for the duration of the play human minds as living as our own, and an imaginary world of which the stage is but a corner.

"In some ways," Howard says, "acting is a slightly disheartening process, because one is usually measuring up to personalities which one ha got very little chance of being. Consider some of the parts I have played, and the qualities that in their nature Shakespeare has given them, his creatures, these extraordinary people. The insights they have and observations they make about life, you are playing. You are being the medium for them, and it's you , and then when it's over you're back where you were. I like to think, but I doubt, that some of these extraordinary qualities might affect one to make one a bit less selfish, more understanding. But I'm not sure that they do.

The thinking King

"A genuine acting performance is a very odd thing. It's a kind of sacrifice, in an odd sense, that's happening in front of you. It fascinates me that it's dead as soon as it's done, yet while it's being done it's the most living thing that probably is happening there. It's intended. It's been organised and structured so that a number of people should be in a place at a given time, and a number of other people will fulfil that contract of trust.

As each second goes by it's absolutely lost. We know that happens in our lives, but it's amazing to organise an occasion for it."

Obviously Howard owes a lot to his work with Brook on the Dream. His acting qualities tally perfectly with the textual side of Brook's theatrical work, though he didn't go to Paris after the Dream. "I think he would like me to have gone," he says. "I found at that stage that that was perhaps a bit too inward-looking. I don't know quite how suitable I would be for that sort of work. At the moment I'm still in a state where I want an end in view, rather than going into massive reflection on what the end is."

He played the dual role of Theseus/Oberon (Theberon, we used to call it") for around 540 performances: "I didn't want to do it quite as often as we had to when we went on the world tour, but then circumstances rather made it impossible for me not to. I did want to go abroad with it. There was something about that play and the way it was done that survived very well on such a tour."

But oddly enough, because of Brook's fame and his companies' commitment to ensemble values, individual contributions did not necessarily bring to actors like Howard, David Waller, and Sara Kestelman the credit they deserved. One line in particular jolted me with sudden discovery: "the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imaginationamend them." It was Howard who etched that sentence of Theseus, cutting across the clever court talk with which the Pyramus and Thisbe play is greeted.

There are many similar moments in his performance as Hal/Henry (the same character running through the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V). The particular weight put on precise meaning and intention is Howard's hallmark. There is a parallel perhaps between the growling monotone with which Paul Schofield punched out Brook's King Lear (and which still seemed in evidence for the Leeds Playhouse Tempest last year) and Howard's cool, matter of fact speech, the language deliberate, quizzical, eyebrows (as it were) raised.

Both methods aim to sink the meaning deep into the audience's consciousness, but in Hal/Henry, Howard emerges as his own man. There's a line very early in Henry V that sets the seal on the performance. Howard's acidulous tones interrupt the Archbishop's tedious history lesson in the second scene with careful point: "May I with right" (pause) "and conscience" (pause) "make" (pressing down on the word like a thumbprint validating the other concepts) "this claim?" This latest role is revolutionary because at last we have a hero who is not a kind of English Siegfried, but a man completely absorbed in the task of defining the social contract between governor and governed.

Henry  V act 1 scene 1

Howard says: "I know that some people, when it first came out, said slightly predictably, 'Yes. It was jolly good. But why did Henry have to be neurotic?' But I hope it's not neurotic, because that's not what I mean it to be. Yet there is a certain supposition that Henry V is supposed to be the archetypal completely together man, right from the beginning of the play, and that's what they like about him - an iron man. He knows absolutely from the word go, what he's going to do, how he's going to achieve it, boo-boom.

"It's not so much our generation" (Howard is 38) "more one's parents' generation. But it seems to me very worrying when a person with such responsibility doesn't actually have sleepless nights. Very worrying for our times, if we're actually depending on the characteristic that people in high-powered top positions running newspapers, industry, the country are supposed to be these totally iron people. In fact, I would like to think they weren't."

Of course Howard's role in the Dream was very much the deus ex machina, pulling all the sttrings together after what he calls "that whole weird excursion through the labyrinth." In the Henry plays (and his approach to the role takes Hal/Henry as unified) he is struggling to ward off disaster all the way to Agincourt, and even the "happy" coda, with the wooing of the Princess and the healing speech by the Duke of Burgundy, has a tinge of irony about it in the postscript of the Chorus. Howard says that having played Hamlet has helped him a great deal with the Henrys. Certainly there is in Hal a great reluctance to get stuck into the action. Henry V as he emerges is thoughtful, cautiously determined, down to earth, still as humorous as the younger Hal.

"The biggest crime anyone can commit in a relationship with him," says Howard, "is to assume that he is what he appears to be from what he does. That's why the Poins-Hal thing finally breaks up. Because Poins does just that, so does Falstaff, and so does his father."

Howard is a most unflashy actor, not given to vocal cadenzas or carefully observed physical eccentricities. There have been very great actors whose performances wwere built up from tiny fragments, signals of information, whose techniques obttruded because it was indeed what people expected. With Howard the attention is always being drawn away from the overt elements of stagecraft towards the diamond facets of the brain of the character he plays.

When his performances flounder it is because of a short circuit in the mental electricity. What about the slight change in the wooing scene that seemed to shatter the magic? "Sometimes one tries to demonstrate something too consciously, to show the meaning," he explains, "and it gets on the wrong foot."

He never went to drama school, preferring to start right off on the stage management side. It took him months even to graduate to being an Assistant Stage Manager, but others in a company that included Frank Finlay and Charles Kay confirmed that he didn't need drama school. They said: "You can walk straight, and you've got a good voice." Howard adds: "And of course I used to watch enormously."

Even lacking the eloquence of the character he is playing, the qualities of his personality in real life are amazingly similar to the impression he generates on stage. Acting is much more a matter of exposing oneself than of adopting a mask. The actor performs on his own person, not on some illusion; the illusion springs from the performing on himself. An actor is worthless if he cannot reveal himself on the stage. When people say of an actor that he's boring because he's always the same, they mean he's always the same mask.

Howard is a living demonstration of these rules. Pretending is much easier than being oneself, just natural. Howard says: "Having done the Henrys, I have the feeling that that is the end of that particular range of parts. One will always want to come back to doing Shakespeare. There's still masses more that one wants to attempt in that sense. What one quite does in between I really don't know."

Tom Sutcliffe

The Guardian, 20.1.1976

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