Howard's Beginning

The crimes Alan Howard has been accused of include high-handedness with caesuras, being over-complicated and perverse in his performances, and insulting the intelligence of one of the pillars of Stratford society.

Howard has also been described (by Gareth Lloyd Evans in a Guardian review) as "a real RST discovery" who commands attention by a sort of controlled eccentricity. His acting is daring and disturbing. In the current marathon Stratford season he has an exhausting collection of parts - Edgar in King Lear, Jaques in As You Like It, Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, which opened on October 14.

On his mother's side Alan Howard's family have been actors for five generations. It all started when great great grandfather Henry defected from the Mackenzie tribe, who were ministers in Scotland, went to London, changed his name to Henry Compton and played the Gravedigger to Irving's Hamlet. Edward Compton, his son, married shrewdly, ran his own theatrical company, and is described - to Howard's delight - in one reference book as "a greatly underrated actor."

Then there is great uncle Monty, who would have been the finest actor of all - though he said so himself - but wouldn't have been able to stick it after the first night; that's the grand old trouper Compton Mackenzie, of course, who is about to publish Octave Eight of his autobiography. Meanwhile, great aunt Fay Compton has been "pottering about in Sanctuary." Alan Howard's mother was Jean Compton, who was a bit too sensitive as an actress, he says, and his father is Arthur Howard who was Mr Pettigrew in the Jimmy Edward's television comedy series Whack-o. Cousin Ronald Howard has been appearing in an American television series Cowboy in Africa and uncle Leslie Howard, who died in 1943, was the star of Gone With The Wind.

With that sort of theatrical background there was bound to be solid and expert family opposition when Alan Howard announced that he wanted to go on the stage. But they went to see him in Winter's Tale at Ardingly College and were impressed enough to agree that he should go and sweep a stage somewhere and make his own way. After National Service he became an ASM at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, got a small part in Major Barbara, graduated to Wesker, to Chichester in 1962, a tour of South America in 1964, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966. He also played the muscular vicar in Peter Hall's film Work is a Four Letter Word.

"People come up to you and ask how you're going to play a part," he says. "But it's an impossible question. It's like asking someone how they are going to live their life for the next five years. The idea of a smooth, consistent characterisation is rubbish." Stage characters should be allowed as much inconsistency and variation as there is in life, he says. "Even the best and most super people have their dark side."

Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is behind it all. Howard says it was a great influence - "except there should have been four million books instead of four." Comprehension of people depends on minute study of relationships from every angle. "I tentatively play with ideas and thoughts about time," he says. "If we lived our 70 years as if they were longer we would get a better understanding of people. We wasted so much of our lives."

Howard hasn't yet achieved a perfect understanding with some members of his audiences - particularly with his portrayal of Achilles as an effeminate creature in sort of white kaftan and wearing a blonde bun. He mimics the outraged colonel who said "To suggest that Achilles was a homosexual is just not on" and the polite hostility of the Stratford shopkeepers who say they haven't "actually seen Troilus and Cressida, but have "heard funny things about it." Howard claims textural support for his interpretation and justifies the camp mannerisms as Achilles's way of mocking the war and the warriors he despises as well as being a basic part of barrack tomfoolery. He defends the kaftan as good leisure wear for skulking in tents - and a good device to cope with all the references in the text to Achilles's splendid sinews. "I told John Barton I could strip fairly well, but I couldn't manage that much."

In As You Like It his Jaques shivers through Arden, self-torturing and bitterly rejecting the world. When he did it with Roy Kinnear as Touchstone last season they were known as Black Cloud and Silver Lining. He regards Jaques as a man who has seen everything and done everything by the age of 30 and has fallen in love with a woman who has given him the pox. The "All the world's a stage" speech, so often made out as a sort of mild after-dinner observation, is delivered with savage intensity. "Everyone knows the speech," Howard says. "You can feel them sitting back to relax and enjoy it, and say isn't it lovely." He doesn't allow cosy Bard-worship.

Oliver Pritchett

Guardian, 9.11.68

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