New man, new Hamlet

Alan Howard often wears the expression of a creature burdened by the world's problems. Yet, like Hamlet, the part he is currently playing at Stratford, he can be resolute as well as neurotic, philosophical as well as active.

Every actor who takes on Hamlet presumably thinks his is the one that will crack it. It is logical to wonder if, after 370 years, anything new can be said about the worldly prince. "Yes," says Mr. Howard, "Hamlet is as new as every new man who plays him."

For a man whose family have been actors for five generations, with great-great-grandfather playing the Gravedigger to Irving's Hamlet, and late uncle Leslie Howard (of Gone With The Wind) playing Hamlet on Broadway, young Mr. Howard approaches the part with special credentials.

In the four years that he has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company - by way of Chichester, Royal Court, Mermaid Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse - he has sprouted swiftly and sturdily into one of its brightest stars. It is clear that he is being groomed to take his place alongside the prized David Warner and Ian Richardson.

In his pocket he carries the award from 'Plays and Players' magazine for the most promising actor of 1969, plus a bevy of much-praised performances over the last season or two. Critics call his acting daring and disturbing, over-complicated and perverse; they say he does nothing the easy way and that he is tempered by a controlled eccentricity.

That which appears perverse, or any of the other qualities that have sometimes given this young Londoner the air of being misunderstood, would seem to spring from an intuitive literary intelligence, from the ability to illuminate a text "his own way." It's probably almost impossible to spend part of your childhood in the Outer Hebrides with Great Uncle Compton Mackenzie without some feeling for words rubbing on to you.

This is Alan Howard's big year, with a highly regarded Mephistophilis, in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus already in performance, and a débutant Oberon to come in August in a new production of the Dream by Peter Brook.

Alas poor Yorick.....

All this is part and parcel of Mr. Howard's progress from last year, when, except for the smallish part of Bartholomew Cokes, he spent the year in London, at the Aldwych Theatre deepening the interpretations he had originally created at Stratford.

He added to the growing list of Howard admirers with a worldly wise Benedick whose cynical skirmishes with the ladies have made him too witty a fellow to woo in earnest; a feline lascivious Lussurioso; and an effeminate Achilles boasting blond bun, pigtails, and white kimono.

Mr. Howard has in fact found himself associated with few more misunderstood roles than Achilles, which surprised him and everyone concerned with Troilus and Cressida. But he points out, by way of explanation, "You only have to look at a Greek vase to see that these guys wore buns. The Spartans wore their hair very long, which they combed before going into battle."

The extent to which an actor is ultimately shaped by the admiration of his hero is too moot a point to contemplate, but there are moments when Mr. Howard's performance reflects something of Laurence Olivier's quiet beauty and pathos to suggest a basis at least for debate. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that Mr. Howard has had no formal training as an actor, but made his professional debut by way of assistant stage management at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, where his first part came in Major Barbara.

It means you look in vain for a particular school of acting to which you can pin him, though he admits that he is drawn to "what you might call the 'natural' approach; that's why Hamlet is so marvelous: such incredible moments of naturalism, and at times so modern."

It is this current appetite for naturalism in Shakespeare, particularly within the RSC, that Mr. Howard finds so stimulating. "People," he explains, "are being made to think about what they're saying, to go into the text and into the character, and really sort it all out, instead of just making a lot of phony noises."

Speculation at the moment is whether the Dane will do for Mr. Howard what it did for Mr. Warner five years ago. Mr. Howard himself likens Hamlet to the first of a series of mountains.

"I won't be able to develop any further until I climb this mountain and see what further mountains lie on the other side," he says philosophically. "It's such a personal role, it strikes so many incredible chords in oneself, that I don't see how I can ever be the same again."

Ian Woodward

Christian Science Monitor, 17.8.1970.


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