La Grande Magia

Alan Howard is well and truly back in the driving seat, and the London stage is the main beneficiary. His latest role as the jealous husband in Richard Eyre's stunning version of Eduardo de Filippo's 1948 play La Grande Magia has won the actor the kind of plaudits he once so often enjoyed as the RSC's blue-eyed boy back in the late '70s. The Guardian's Michael Billington described it as his "finest performance in years", while in The Sunday Times Robert Hewison wrote of Howard's "magnificent and tragic speech". Even the Mail's Jack Tinker surrenders eloquently to the gamut run in Howard's performance from "high comedy to deepest tragedy."

Implicit in this warm acclaim is the 'welcome back' to an actor now fully and successfully returned to the classical repertoire after an absence from the stage of almost a decade during the '80s. Howard made his entrance onto the London stage in the early '60s at the Royal Court playing in the Arnold Wesker trilogy. By 1970 he was Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, and a year later he made his New York debut in Peter Brook's seminal production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

This is the kind of work experience theatre fans don't like to see slipping away into other media. But after the commercial run of Stephen Poliakoff's [sic]* Good in 1981, with which he again went to Broadway, Howard became a theatrical flatliner, producing not so much as a blip on the dramatic scene. There was lots of television and some film and radio work, but the stage was effectively given up. He didn't want the irregular hours eating into his family life.

Happily, to the relief of those who rate Howard as one of the best actors of his generation, the actor has been back on song in the '90s. First came Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of his own six-part television play Scenes From A Marriage. Then came a great success as Professor Higgins in Howard Davies' NT production of Pygmalion, followed by an excellent Thane of Cawdor in Richard Eyre's Macbeth.

Now in La Grande Magia Alan Howard plays a different kind of jealous husband. His Calogero is a man who not only visibly ages a decade or two in the course of the evening when his wife is spirited away by a charlatan illusionist, but who more crucially charts an emotional decline from disdainful hauteur to teetering insanity with great élan. It's currently one of the great performances on the London stage.

* C.P. Taylor

Graham Hassell

What's On: London , 20-27, 9.95

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