'One of the bloody heroes' takes on Hamlet

Alan Howard isn't yet a household name but he will be.His burning talent, already recognised by the theatrical elite, must make him soon a star in the sense that other great actors of the English stage are stars.

The man's labyrinthine introspection, his tendency to bring a mass of complications to everything he does, his belief that acting is a very, very long business of survival - none of these things puts him on the road to instant success, which probably explains why, at nearly 33, even with a long list of brilliant performances to his credit, he has so far missed, or perhaps mercifully escaped, the more traditional rewards of showbiz.

Things may be different after June 4 with his Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production at Stratford.

After Jaques ("shivers through Arden, self-torturing and bitterly rejecting the world" wrote Oliver Pritchett in The Guardian) in the 1967/68 As You Like It and his award-winning Achilles in the company's transcendental Troilus and Cressida last year, it must have been obvious that Hamlet was the next step.

It is only in these last two years that the possibility of playing Hamlet has become a real one for Alan Howard himself.

"Naturally, any actor hopes that one day he will do it but it is only fairly recently that I have begun to have more than vague feelings about it, yes, perhaps because there are areas of Hamlet in both Jaques and Achilles."

He will not, possibly cannot, answer the impossible question of how he is going to play Hamlet but he will say, when asked about the temptation to make his the greatest Hamlet of all time: "Nobody is ever going to do to everybody's taste a completely successful Hamlet. Everybody who plays it manages to find something new in some part of the play which makes it interesting and exciting. If one can thrash out the play from one's own point of view, make it complete to oneself, then one is achieving a great deal."

He has seen Burton's Hamlet, Jeremy Brett's and David Warner's. Do they intrude? No.

"I know what I want to do with certain things but three days from now I may feel as strongly about throwing them out. Somebody once stopped me outside the stage-door and asked me how I was going to do Jaques. I'm afraid I gave a very flip answer: 'It depends on what I've had for breakfast.'

"Hamlet is as complete or incomplete as any character can be. I don't know how many cylinders a human being works on but one wants to go for all the ambiguities, plus and minus. That's what rehearsals are for - to try out as many as possible.

"Shakespeare gave us a good deal about the people in his plays. He told us what a man was politically - whether he was a Liberal or a Fascist. Physically, we know whether he has one eye or a wooden leg. This is the characterisation and this we must honour.

"But Shakespeare, because he was an actor himself and worked with actors - some of them pretty good actors - gave actors a very free hand. There are just slight indications but the most difficult thing to create is personality and that depends on the character's and your own.

"If you are not afraid to connect yourself to the structure of a character, not just the nice things about you but the nasty things too that you normally keep behind closed doors, it will grow of its own accord."

Alan Howard's acting as a whole has been described as daring and disturbing. He thinks acting should be dangerous; that the audience should be frightened into wondering "what is this guy going to do next?"

People were stunned by Achilles. Geoffrey Ost, former director of Sheffield Playhouse, after seeing Troilus said he would never again be shocked in the theatre and that must have had a lot to do with the way Alan Howard saw Achilles, not as the conventional warrior but a brooding homosexual.

It is an everlasting pity the production was not immortalised on film - in Alan Howard's judgment, for financial as well as artistic reasons.

Reluctant to commit himself in the world of complex possibilities that we call The Arts, he is more assertive when it comes to commercial facts.

"We should not have a two-year cycle but a three-year one," he says. "One season here in Stratford, another in London and then a third to capitalise on all we've done - making films, television, records. We could have a marvellous film of Troilus and Cressida."

With the possible exception of Peter Hall's Work is a Four Letter Word, his experience of the film world he describes as a not particularly happy one. He appeared, without distinction, in Victim, The VIPs and The Heroes of Telemark - "as one of the bloody heroes."

"One is paid well but one's control over what one does is negligible. Even if you're the star, you're told you're getting a million dollars, shut up and get on."

Actors who ride horses in epics filmed in Spain usually want to play Hamlet. Here is a Hamlet who wouldn't mind it the other way round: "I'd love to ride a horse epic in Spain but it would probably turn out to be just like the Heroes of Telemark except that the sun would be shining.

"What is wrong with having the same people who make plays for the theatre also making films for the cinema and television?" he asks in the knowledge that the elitist cinema is growing.

"The best opinions should survive - which is what happens here all the time."

By "here" he means the RSC outside of which he finds it hard to be totally committed to anything because he doesn't trust the simplicity of the new deal in whatever walk of life it's offered.

"I hate groups. Yes, I'm in a group but the thing here is that everybody moans all the time. It's a great bed of seething conflict."

Offstage, he looks a bit like a preoccupied and impoverished schoolteacher on his day off. Thin, with longish, untidy red hair and heavy spectacles, he wears blue cord levis, a crumpled shirt, shoes split at the seams and the sort of fur-hooded coat that puts him on a motor scooter. He eats all the wrong things (consigning a plateful of fried everything to the flames of his nervous energy when I met him) but remains surprisingly slight.

He is married to Stephanie Beaumont who was an actress and is now an assistant designer with the RSC. He comes from an extraordinary family which he describes as middle to upper-middle class.

"I went to private schools and all that sort of jazz but morally (or, perhaps socially, though there is a social morality) there are two sides to the coin and there are more extremes in my background than you'd find in what is described as working class. I've lived in some fantastic houses and some diabolical ones, for instance."

He spent his childhood in the Outer Hebrides with great-uncle on his mother's side, Compton Mackenzie. Great-aunt is Fay Compton. His great-grandfather, Edward Compton, ran the Compton Comedy Company which played at Stratford in1881 and his great-great- grandfather, Henry Compton, who started it all off, played the Gravedigger to Irving's Hamlet.

Alan Howard's father is Arthur Howard who was Mr Pettigrew in Whack-O, his uncle the late and much-loved Leslie Howard and his cousin Ronald Howard.

He thinks he is lucky to have such an illustriously theatrical background but wants to be his own man. He started doing that in a school play when his family agreed he was good enough but must make his own way.

His first job was an ASM at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry where his first part came almost by accident. After that, among other things, the Royal Court, Chichester, the Mermaid, Nottingham and in 1966, the RSC.

In the meantime, he read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which he says opened up a lot of strange things and caused him to ponder on such imponderables as time, reality and the understanding of personality through microscopic examination of human relationships.

In the simplest terms the influence on his acting is a conviction that a fictional character must be as inconsistent in his behaviour as a factual one.

He has worked and thought and worried hard and long for his Hamlet.

Pat Roberts

Sheffield Evening Telegraph 29.4.70.

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