The King as Iconoclast

Word first came last Spring from Stratford-upon-Avon of the Royal Shakespeare Company's triumphant centenary production of Henry V. "No words could convey its splendour," said the London Times, and the Observer declared it simply and solely "extraordinary."

Now the company has winged over from the Sceptred Isle to Brooklyn's Academy of Music to give New Yorkers a three-week look at this heralded production and the newest star in the company's already-crowded crown, Alan Howard, who plays the title role.

For a decade, 38-year-old Howard has been regarded as a renegade actor, complicated, quick-tempered, greatly gifted, reknowned for doing off-beat things like his bisexual Achilles in Troilus and Cressida and the dual role of Theseus-Oberon in Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

But nothing he has ever done previously could possibly measure up to his Henry (in England he also did Henry IV, Parts I and II), in which he has emerged as a full-fledged mature talent. Without pause, Henry V's director, Terry Hands, tells you, "I think Alan is unquestionably the best actor of his age in England. He's one of the few who has both physical and mental coordination combined with a voice which is capable of tackling the great roles. Let's put it this way: he's the next Olivier.

 Once more into the breach....

"In our country there have been two previous Henry V's of contemporary note, Olivier's filmed Henry (released in 1945) which was a hero king without doubt, without uncertainty and in a sense without soul. He never explored it because he never had to, the lines had been cut from the text. The other was Ian Holm in 1964, who played him as an anti-war king who fought his battles because he had to. What Alan does is to combine the warrior king with the questioning thinker and then add a third quality, the vulnerable human being, the man fighting to cope with the role that's been thrust upon him."

And coping was just what one found Howard doing late last Monday afternoon as he sat in the Park Ave. offices of Paul A. Lepercq, chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Plagued by jet lag and wine with lunch, Howard's broad, spacious face was sunburned from a recent holiday in Greece and his garb (T-shirt, sandals, rolled up trousers) seemed ideally suited for the 90-degree weather outside. There have been five generations of actors in the Howard family, Alan's father, Arthur and his mother, who hails from the Compton Mackenzie clan, and of course, his famous uncle Leslie, whom some critics feel Alan resembles.

He readily shrugs off any comparisons. "Uncle Leslie," he says somewhat satirically, "I really never knew him. He was a lot older than my father and usually only showed up at family functions. Anyway I think his style of acting was totally different from mine. I know a lot of people say it is like mine, but it is not. I'm a much more reckless actor than he ever was and, well, I've done much more Shakespeare than he ever did.

"In the beginning, you see, my parents were very much against my becoming an actor, because they didn't have a very easy time earning a living in the theater. I made my debut at 13 at public school in Sussex as Celia in As You Like It, and I didn't like it at all. I had a man director that stood at the end of the hall and kept yelling, 'I can't hear you! I can't hear you!' I hated it."

But there were more pleasant acting experiences for Alan, who at 20, finally decided on a theatrical career.

He worked on and off in the theater for several years until 1966, when the Royal Shakespeare Company invited him to join. Since his acting has always been individualistic, how did he approach the part of Henry V?

Pushing his fingers through his hair, knitting his eyebrows, he sighed. "Oh, gosh, that's a difficult question." Pause. "I think in a curious way Shakespeare defies approach in the way other mortal playwrights do not. There are so many ambiguities and misconceptions that just one approach is impossible. As an actor, you should be allowed to approach the lines of Shakespeare individually, not conceptually. I think the great academics have inhibited so many actors that they just turn away from Shakespeare. They feel Oh God, every line here means something, and they are just overwhelmed. Also I wish teachers would allow school children to have a more natural reaction to Shakespeare's text instead of stuffing interpretation down their throats. You see, I don't feel Shakespeare is as hard as he's made out to be."

Howard is here with Sally Beauman, a writer, who recently published "Henry V" (Pergamon Press-British Book Centre), an account of the Royal Shakespeare production, and their 17-month-old son, James. He confessed playing for American audiences fascinates him. "They're all so different because you have such a mighty continent," he said. "Eastern audiences are the best because they're so responsive. Our audiences at Stratford-upon-Avon are very staid. On the other hand, when we toured A Midsummer Night's Dream to Los Angeles, we were a bit thrown by the reception we got. Audiences out there seemed dutiful. I think it has something to do with the Los Angeles Music Center being a subscription audience, with the tickets mailed to the subscribers; they all come in their cars, which are parked in the bowels of the theater. They then ride on an escalator, where they are met by ushers who seat them. It's all such a hermetically-sealed experience. I wonder what the purpose of going to the theater out in Los Angeles is.

"I know going to the theater in New York or London is a hassle. You can never find a bloody parking space, getting the tickets is tough and you usually arrive angry and sweating. Yet it's as if the scab has been taken off and in a way you're open to infection. If a play is good, it takes, if it's not, you're made more angry, but at least the experience has an affect on you. But the obsession with these large cultural complexes striving to make us, the public, happy is not altogether right, I don't think."

'Henry V' edited by Sally Beauman

Though he's done some television and some film bits (the most recent was a flash in Royal Flash), for the past 10 years Howard seemed more than content spending most of his time at the Royal Shakespeare Company's headquarters either in London or Stratford.

Evenly, he explained, "In a company like this there are opportunities for one to do one's work as an actor. Recently I did some television and I find British television a very odd medium at the moment. Earlier I used to think there were some possibilities in its newness. Those seem to have vanished. What worries me most about television in my country is that I don't think it is developed as an art form."

And films? "Maybe," he said. "If only one could finance and work with a small group of people. If there was any way one could make a very modestly budgeted film, it would appeal to me enormously because it's in a medium I know very little about.

"But the trouble with films in general is the problem of money. One has to be very careful about what one is paid because ultimately your territory is being handed over. In films you're paid so much bloody money your silence is bought which can be a dilemma for one who thinks of oneself as an artist."

Henry V

The Sunday News, 25.4.76.

Bernard Carragher.


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