Alan Howard relished the Elvish

Voice of The Ring in monarchy play

Classical actor takes varied roles

There's a ring to his voice, but that's what you'd expect from The Voice of The Ring.

Alan Howard has had a distinguished career onstage for 45 years, but the most successful project he's ever been connected with is his involvement with The Lord Of The Rings, in which he is heard, but never seen.

Director Peter Jackson tapped Howard to play the all-important Voice Of The Ring in the incredibly popular trilogy, but he's still not sure exactly how it happened.

"Either Peter or one of his associates had seen my work," chuckles the self-effacing Howard, "and they thought I sounded like the right man for the job."

Howard found Jackson "a very pleasant chap to work for, and I relished the challenge of wrapping my tongue around the complex Elvish sounds I was obliged to learn, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be as successful as it's proven to be."

On this bright, cold afternoon, Howard is sitting in a corner of the Avenue lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel, munching contentedly on a turkey club sandwich.

He's enjoying his time here in Toronto, performing with Vanessa Redgrave and his fellow cast members from The Hollow Crown, the collection of readings "by and about the monarchy" which continues to run at the Princess of Wales Theatre through Feb. 29.

But it's not his first visit to our city. That occurred in 1971, when he appeared here as Theseus/Oberon in Peter Brook's revolutionary "white box" production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"We did it at the O'Keefe ..." he starts to recall, but on being told the venue has since changed its name to the Hummingbird Centre, he breaks into laughter.

"What an extraordinary name for such a big theatre! You know, when we saw how huge it was, we all went out front to watch each other during the technical rehearsal. The amazing thing was that you could be heard, but you just didn't know who was actually speaking because it was these tiny figures a million miles away.

"We finally discovered a solution. Every time someone spoke they made a kind of semaphore gesture." Howard nearly upsets the table in front of us as he demonstrates the grandiose sort of move required to ensure visibility on the stage which Brendan Behan once described as "a sanctified garage".

Memories of working with Brook have taken hold of Howard, and he puts down his sandwich to recall them.

"We were all expecting Peter to be very authoritarian, but it was quite the opposite. On the first day of rehearsal he said to us `Shakespeare's plays are so complex that I think 17 heads are better than one to dig out what these things mean to us today.'"

He smiles, recalling the process. "We used to sit around in a circle and Brook would ask us what a word meant to us ... a word like `moon' or `flower'. And we'd offer our own personal interpretations, everything from scientific explanations to old wives' tales. The final result was to imbue every image used in the play with a layered sense of meaning. When an actor said `moon' we didn't just hear the text, but we knew what the word meant to him personally."

That production was one of numerous high points in the career of the man born Alan Mackenzie Howard in London on Aug. 5, 1937.

His father, Arthur, was a beloved television comedian and his uncle was the famed actor, Leslie Howard, tragically shot down during World War II.

"I never really knew my uncle," he says quietly, "he died just before I turned 6."

But it's possible to see the family resemblance in the pale skin, the liquid eyes and the sensitive glance. Coming from a pedigree like that, admits Howard, was a double-edged sword. "It gave you something to strive for, but it also gave you something to rebel against. For a while, I was torn between the two."

But in the end, it wasn't much of a struggle and Howard got his first professional job with the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry when he was 21 years old.

One of his earliest mentors was former Stratford artistic director John Neville, who acted with Howard under Laurence Olivier in the inaugural season of the Chichester Festival in 1962 and subsequently hired him at the Nottingham Playhouse during his tenure there.

After that, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966 and remained there through 1982, playing most of the leading roles in world literature.

The last two decades have seen Howard undertake a dizzying assortment of projects, including Peter Greenaway's outrageous 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.

In recent years, his most memorable undertaking was the title role in The Oedipus Plays, directed by Sir Peter Hall, which began at the ancient Greek theatre in Epidaurus in 1996 and then came home in triumph to London's National Theatre.

He still thrills at the challenge of engaging the audience. "You want to make them laugh or cry, because then you know the message is more likely to stick in the memory and imagination of the viewer."

It's not quite "one ring to unite them all", but for Alan Howard, it's more than enough.

Richard Ouzounian

Toronto Star, 18.2.04.

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