The man with the hippo tooth

Talking to Alan Howard, about everything from the magic in Shakespeare to the magic in a hippopotamus tooth, is a lot like trying to pin down a flying Puck.

Mr Howard does not play Puck; he plays Oberon, king of the fairies, and Theseus, too, in the far-out production by the Royal Shakespeare Company of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It will open tonight in our new Festival Theatre.

He is, however, decidedly sprite-like in his talk. He flies through the air, and the medium he uses is not a trapeze, as they do in the play, but his swinging imagination. No wonder he is a little difficult to bring to earth. The poor devil has been travelling, on the wing, for 10 months.

He gave me what he called "a ludicrous list" of places - London, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Venice, Milan, Cologne, Hamburg, Bucharest, Belgrade, Zagreb, Sofia, Helsinki, Warsaw, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, and now Adelaide.

Next stops, Melbourne and Sydney. Then home, to where the Royal Shakespeare lot belongs, in Stratford.

Mr Howard is from a theatrical family. His uncle was the late Leslie Howard, Fay Compton is his great-aunt. They told him not to go on the stage, of course. But the wayward lad disobeyed.

He wears his hippopotamus tooth over his heart, and his heart belongs to Shakespeare. He has been in the Royal Shakespeare Company for seven years and played in 17 productions.

He has played Hamlet, so where does he go from there?

"That man"

"On to the next mountain range," he said, dramatically. He calls Shakespeare "that man," as if he were someone alive, as indeed, for Mr Howard, he is. So is the play.

"The most thrilling and extraordinary thing about The Dream to me is that it has had something to say to all those different people in all those places, even when they could not understand the language," he said. In Japan, they sat enthralled, watching every movement, and there is plenty to watch, including erotic undertones and phallic symbols none too subtle.

Mr Howard denied that his hippopotamus tooth was a phallic symbol, though it had magic properties.

"It was given to me by a woman to ward off evil women," he claimed.

He liked to think it was a lion's tooth, a lion being his favourite male symbol, until one day, in San Francisco, a zoologist asked what it was.

"It's a lion's tooth," said Mr Howard proudly.

"Like hell it is," said the zoologist rudely. "It's a hippopotamus tooth."

Mr Howard likes it just as much.

He likes the play just as much after doing it in all those cities. He is the veteran of the cast. This does not mean he is the oldest, as he took pains to point out. He is only 35. But he has been in it longest. It changes every night, he says, according to the experiences of the cast in whatever city they are in.

"When you are touring everything is constantly different," he said. "The geography, the weather, the women, the drinks, the food, the cars, the language, the clothes, the people, everything. So the people in the company change, according to their sensitivity to their surroundings. If you like a place or hate a place or feel happy or sad or up or down in it, your performance is affected."

How did he feel in Adelaide? I asked a bit anxiously.

"Great," he said. "Just great."

"But cold," he added. "It is winter here. We have just come from early spring in Japan. This makes a difference."

"A person feels different in summer and winter. So does an actor, but being more sensitive than your average person, he feels even more different. We try to make the play an individual thing for every audience every night," he said.

The play

Far from being a gimmicky production, he felt that the play as we would see it here, with its big white box of a set and its trapezes and its four fairies in ordinary sort of costumes would be much more like the way the Elizabethans did it than the way the Victorians used to do it.

"We have cut right back to the way Shakespeare meant it to be," he said. "If that man were alive today, he would use every device he could to communicate."

Mr Howard requires no devices. He has his silver tongue, his quicksilver mind, his animated face and his lively body. And a hippopotamus tooth as a conversation starter.

John Miles

The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), 5.6.1973


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