King of Kings

During the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies, Alan Howard was the great voice of the classical stage. For almost 20 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he brilliantly played virtually every king in the canon. From the same generation of fine actors as Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins, he is arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. No-one spoke verse like him - he made every Bardic iambic pentameter sound freshly minted. And yet, unfairly, his is not a household name like Ian McKellen or Derek Jacobi. From his 1966 RSC debut as Orsino in Twelfth Night, through to Peter Brook's legendary Dream, the Henry plays and a definitive Coriolanus, Howard won golden opinions and a groaning mantelpiece full of awards. Then, in the Eighties, he left the stage 'to spend more time with his family'.

His partner is the best-selling, bonkbusting writer Sally Beauman, who is reputed to have won a GBP 1m advance for her novel, Destiny. The couple have one 25-year-old son, James. "There had been too many kings," he once told me, discussing his reason for going quiet in the Eighties.

Sixty-two-year-old Howard spent the ensuing years doing everything from television mini-series and voice-overs to films - most memorably opposite Helen Mirren in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. (He was the lover.)

Alan Howard

Finally, he re-emerged at Chichester and then the Royal National Theatre in the early Nineties - back where he belonged on big stages in big plays. Since then he has given us his Macbeth, his Lear and a whole range of acclaimed roles, from a Peter Hall-directed Waiting For Godot and a ferocious and unrelenting monster of a Henry Higgins in Pygmalion - a reading that banished forever memories of Rex Harrison's old charmer in the film -to a tour de force in the Almeida's The Play About The Baby.

Now he is back at the National, rehearsing his role in The Heiress, the play based on Henry James's novel Washington Square. He is the Victorian paterfamilias, Dr Sloper, whose deeply selfish behaviour ruins his daughter's passionate romance with a grasping young fiance.

A tall, bespectacled man with balding, fair hair, Howard has the abstracted air and scholarly stoop of a schoolmaster. He is sitting in the green room at the National, nursing a glass of red wine and a cigarette, plus a bulging briefcase. As the press officer parks us in an empty office, he says plaintively to her: "You will come and rescue me in due course, won't you?" Howard, you will have gathered, is not fond of interviews and usually never does them before an opening night. But The Heiress, directed by Heartbeat actor Philip Franks, is coming to Edinburgh and Scotland occupies a special place in Howard's heart. He has not acted here since 1991 when he brought one of his best pieces of work to the Edinburgh Fringe - Christopher Logue's translation of the Iliad, which he performed with the poet in a tent on the Meadows.

Compton Mackenzie was his great-uncle and he and Beauman have bought and restored Suidheachan, the house on Barra where the author lived for a decade. He recalls with enormous pleasure sunny childhood holidays spent with Mackenzie in the Hebrides and, if he had his way, would spend virtually all his time there. The legacy of his happy Scottish childhood is an ability to do a mean Scots accent, which he says is useful for the American accent he needs in The Heiress. "There are many fascinating similarities," he says, listing a whole lexicon of words that have a similar pronunciation.

Greasepaint courses through Howard's veins. His father was the comic actor Arthur Howard, whom an elderly generation will recall as the tetchy teacher, Mr Pettigrew, to Jimmy Edwards' headmaster in Whacko! His father's elder brother was the tragic film star Leslie Howard - Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind - and his great-aunt was the distinguished actress Fay Compton.

Both of his Scottish maternal grandparents were actors -his great-great-grandfather played the gravedigger to Sir Henry Irving's Hamlet. With antecedents like that you would think theatrical anecdotes would spill forth, but Howard is an intensely cerebral actor. He thinks long and hard when answering questions. Words tumble out one minute and are hard to find the next. He talks earnestly, tugging his hair, examining the intricate weave of the pattern on his waistcoat, then fixing you with a direct gaze, pausing and addressing the floor or the table as he pursues the exact words that will express his thoughts. His constant digging for the truth of the matter consumes him with questions. It is obviously how he approaches every role, let alone an interview. The least assertive of men, it is ironic that he should be playing such a heavy father in The Heiress. "Well, I was absolutely amazed at how dark it is," he says. "The minute I read it I thought of Ibsen, but you know, it is also sometimes very funny and it is as if a dark cloud has passed. I think it is because all the characters just keep missing each other. The really interesting thing about the play -about which I have been agonising over talking to you, because I want people to come and see it, but I don't want them to think it's just another Victorian melodrama - is how much better it is than the book. It's much more condensed and compact. "I do think it is immensely relevant today - there are still fortune-hunting men and gold-digging girls around, aren't there? There are still fathers who want to protect their child, so it is an eternal theme and just a very, very good story." And, he adds, everyone in it is deeply sexually frustrated, as so many of James's characters are. "There is so much sexual repression in it, it's deeply, deeply Freudian. I feel Dr Sloper is a repressed romantic, who hopes in some Pygmalion way that his daughter will turn into his long-dead wife. Which, of course, raises some rather strange and rather worrying questions for us. They are the sort of questions that nowadays we find very disturbing indeed."

What he likes best about it, though, is the fact that nobody is wrong and nobody is right in the play. "It's completely non-judgmental. They all make mistakes - they are all wrong and they are all right. Just like life. Those sad words, 'if only,' echo constantly throughout the text."

Jackie Mcglone

Scotland on Sunday 23.4.2000.

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