How King Arthur grew up and became King Henry



Outstanding classical actors are few in any generation. One in ours is the Royal Shakespeare Company's Alan Howard. Here he talks about his work to John Heilpern.

'A good many inconveniences attend playgoing in any large city,' said Kenneth Tynan, once upon a time. 'But perhaps the greatest of them is usually the play itself.'

And who would disagree? (Except , perhaps, the playwright.) But the Royal Shakespeare Company has a successful playwright: Shakespeare. And it has another bonus: Alan Howard, an actor always much admired within the theatre, who must now rank as one of the finest in the country. Thus, playgoing need not be an inconvenience. Risks are involved, but it can become a necessity.

Alan Howard

One senses that Mr Howard would agree. He's an idealist. Also, his family is steeped in theatre tradition. Mr Howard was actually conceived in rep when his mother was appearing in Cheltenham. She carried on acting until she was eight months pregnant, wisely wearing crinolines in period plays.

His mother was Jean Compton Mackenzie, which makes Mr Howard a great-nephew to both Fay Compton and and Compton Mackenzie. His great-grandfather was Edward Compton, who played Gravedigger to Henry Irving's Hamlet [sic*] and first made his name in the 18th century comedy Wild Oats, in the lead role which Mr Howard was to recreate with so much success almost a hundred years later.

His father is the comedy actor Arthur Howard, who, working in the opposite direction to the more classical career of his son, has just completed 18 months in the West End hit, No Sex Please -We're British. Alan's uncle was the film star Leslie Howard, towering over all their fortunes. He met him during childhood: Leslie was killed during the war.

When Alan Howard was seven or eight he went to stay with his great-uncle, Compton Mackenzie , on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. There he became friendly with a crofter's daughter of about the same age: Isabella.
"What are you going to be when you grow up?" she asked him.
"King Arthur," he replied.
"Well, you can't be King Arthur," said the crofter's daughter, who was most firm about it. "There's only one King Arthur."
"Then I'll do what my father does," replied the young Alan Howard. "I'll pretend. I'll act."
So he did, though his family were against the idea of a career in theatre: too precarious. Mr Howard remembers with some embarrassment writing home from his public school in Sussex: 'Do hope daddy has a job.' But often daddy hadn't. 'Well, if you must be an actor,' his father advised him later, 'go and sweep a stage somewhere.' So he did that, too.

Now, at 39, Alan Howard is particularly respected for his work with the RSC - Oberon swinging from Peter Brook's famous trapezes in A Midsummer Night's Dream,or as Henry IV and V, for which he won the Best Actor Award and consolidated an international reputation. It is as if, quietly and patiently, a great actor has emerged.

Deeply committed to theatre - a disciple of Brook in many ways - Mr Howard's way of life seems deliberately unglamorous. He says he doesn't have time to be ripped off by trendy restaurants. There's a brooding quality to him. He has the youthful appearance of a rather intense undergraduate. One could imagine him talking late into the night as the wine flowed.

What was he like, we wondered, when drunk? 'As far as I remember,' he replied, 'either incredibly wise or incredibly stupid. I solve the world's problems.'

How was he finding life - good to be alive or not? 'You know, on stage you play a Shakespearean hero and you can have such terrific command of events and people. One so much wishes you could do the same in life. But if life was as pressured as performing, I'd go mad. Outside theatre I go into a state of limbo. No man's land. I have to.'

He couldn't be easy to live with? 'I don't think anyone's easy to live with, do you? It's just a question of finding someone who's as bad to live with as you are.'

He laughed to himself, as if his thought had surprised him. In fact, for some five years he's lived with the journalist Sally Beauman. They have a young son: James Carlos Alexis Mackenzie Howard. Mr Howard played Carlos II in Peter Barne's Bewitched.

The day we met, he was busy rehearsing the Henry VI trilogy (which has just opened in Stratford with a revival of Henry V). Each night before the Stratford opening he went from rehearsals to perform in Wild Oats, arriving home at midnight. Same again the next day. On Sundays, he learnt his lines for the Henry plays: 1,600 lines. He seemed undaunted by the work. Mr Howard is known to be among the most hardworking of actors: a marathon man.

What did he see as his biggest strength? 'I don't know whether I achieve it. I'd like to.It's just that I try not to dwell on the past. It's wasteful: a form of gossip. The time an actor takes to perform a play is the only time it lives. It's the same in life - life working at its best.

Say more! 'When two people meet each other, past meetings aren't really much use to them. They know each other, and yet if each meeting is to work something fresh has to happen. If not, its just routine. You can get by, but you know it isn't the best. In a sense, each meeting should be a new beginning. I think it's the same in theatre. Every performance is taken as if for the first time. The actor feels he knows the role and the audience might know the play, yet the performance is happening in such a way that no one really knows what might happen next.'

Alan Howard and Helen Mirren

It happens rarely? 'Yes, but it's worth going for. It's a mystery of the best possible kind. You know that actors aren't supposed to be very "clever" at analysing what they do. They do it. I know that theatre takes one to the very edge. When it works, it's a process of extraordinary change for the actor and the audience. But will you believe me when I say there are moments when one could quite happily die?'

He sounded touching when he said that, not pretentious.

Alan Howard's special contribution to the theatre is to try for such moments and sometimes, miraculous times, to capture them.

John Heilpern
The Observer Magazine, 17.7.77.

* Actually great-great-grandfather Henry Compton played Gravedigger to Irving's Hamlet.

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