He that plays the King

Alan Howard's latest role will give him the biggest tally of Shakespearean kings of any actor. He talks to Max Davidson

History will be made when Alan Howard takes the stage as King Lear at the Old Vic on Friday. No other actor - not Gielgud, not Olivier, not Irving, not Garrick - has played so many Shakespearean kings. Lear makes it six for Howard and who is to say he cannot make it more? In an age of commoners, he has made regality his hallmark.

"I didn't plan it that way," Howard insists. "The roles just came along." He talks as if the crowns landed on his head by accident, like pigeon droppings; but nobody who has followed his career will believe him for a minute. Some actors are born to play the king and Howard, nephew of the film star Leslie Howard, is one of them. At his best, dominating a theatre with his bugle-like voice, he has a presence that no other contemporary actor can match.

His heyday was with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Seventies and early Eighties, when he gave a string of memorable performances - none better than his Coriolanus, in which the trademark Howard qualities of arrogance and sensitivity were exquisitely counterpoised. His career has stuttered since and, to his critics, he has become a mannered actor, over-reliant on verbal tricks. But with Lear, under Peter Hall's direction, he should be back on home ground.
"Ay, every inch a king. When I do stare, see how the subject quakes...."

It is the majesty in the character, as always, that appeals to him. "There's got to be somewhere for Lear to fall from," he says. "That is why it is so important, in the opening scenes, to create an image that is potent and Olympian. The division of the kingdom may be ludicrous, but the audience has to sense that this man was once a good king, beloved by his subjects."

A King in line

Whether the critics prefer Howard's Olympian Lear to the more homespun king currently offered by Ian Holm at the National Theatre, the production will not falter through lack of ambition. Since the war, the tendency has been to strip Lear of his kingliness and emphasise his common humanity. Even Olivier fell into the trap. Kenneth Tynan rubbished his Lear as "offering interesting glimpses into the old age of Justice Shallow". Olivier himself later dismissed Paul Scofield's performance as "Mr Lear". Now Howard is determined to restore the balance.

"I know a lot of people who have problems with this play because of the way it is performed. Lear is nasty to his daughters, they are nasty back, who cares about any of them? But if you look at the text, you find a rather different play.

"Take Lear's hundred knights. They are usually played as louts who make Goneril's life intolerable. But where is the justification for that? If Shakespeare had wanted scenes of knights smashing up the place, he would have written them. He didn't. Their loutishness is an invention of Goneril - which puts Lear in a better light.

"You must have a hero whom the audience can admire."

Howard's roles of honour

Henry V

Henry VI Part I

(RSC 1975 dir. Terry Hands

Henry V (above) marked the first flowering of the Howard-Hands partnership and became one of the most successful RSC productions ever. This Henry, for all his manly vigour, was a far more diffident king than Olivier's wartime hero. "I was interested by the interior of man," remembers Howard. "As Prince Hal, which I played in the same season, he had been extremely reluctant to take on his royal responsibilities; and he was still racked by self-doubt when he ascended the throne."

(RSC 1977 dir. Terry Hands

The three parts of Henry VI (above) among Shakespeare's earliest plays, had previously been thought unperformable in their full version. A star-studded cast headed by Howard and Helen Mirren restored them to favour and gave Howard one of his most fondly remembered roles. "It was a wonderful part and very rewarding to play. Henry never overcame the sadness of his father dying when he was very young. He was unstable, both physically and mentally, and preferred the library to the battlefield."

Richard II

Richard III

(RSC 1981 dir. Terry Hands

Howard was now unofficially the RSC's leading man, and playing the two Richards back to back provided a showcase for the full range of his talents. Of the two, totally contrasting roles he marginally preferred Richard II (above) - as did the critics. "There was a touch of the Sun King in Richard. He was more interested in the arts than heavy barons. To that extent, the character resembled Henry VI, though temperamentally more volatile. Bolingbroke had a more practical approach to government."

(RSC 1981 dir. Terry Hands

Playing villains had never particularly attracted Howard. although he had been a notable Lussurioso in Trevor Nunn's landmark Revenger's Tragedy in 1968. The text is paramount when Howard approaches a new role, and he found the key to Richard III (above) not in his physical deformity but in his language. "Richard II spoke in beautiful, highly wrought poetry. He was like a great schooner at sea. Richard III was a bum-boat in comparison, the lines all warped and higgledy-piggledy, like his thought processes."

(NT 1993 dir. Richard Eyre

Howard's first Shakespearean role for 10 years (right) was generally viewed as a failure*. Another example of the Scottish play claiming a celebrated scalp? "The production didn't really hang together," admits Howard. "The Olivier was too big an auditorium and I had to give a louder, more externalised performance than I would have liked. Macbeth is quite an interior role, and I was interested in exploring the domestic aspects of the character, in particular his being married to a much younger woman."


Max Davidson

Daily Telegraph, 3.9.97

(* Actually analysis of the reviews showed a 65% for, 35% against split. A higher rating in favour than Jacobi's performance the same year - commonly hailed by some of the nation's critics as a great success! - JP)

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Playing Shakespeare/King Lear