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A full house

In his second article on the RSC season which opens next month in Newcastle PETER MORTIMER talks to ALAN HOWARD - an actor who thrives on hard work and the sort of artistic challenge which would make lesser mortals quit.

By around 10.30 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, no one, I'm sure, will complain if Alan Howard quietly collapses.

Not that he will. His stamina has not let him down so far, and after Newcastle there's still London.

Howard undertakes one of the most remarkable and strenuous challenges in the present RSC schedule. Taking the lead part in a Shakespeare play is daunting enough for any actor. Howard takes five leads - simultaneously.

He can be seen as Henry VI in the rarely seen trilogy Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, as Henry V, and also as Coriolanus. Having seen him in the last role, and observed the energy and passion he injects into the tragic Roman hero, I was left wondering how he can switch so rapidly to the English monarchs.

A deeply committed actor, 40-year old Howard is disarmingly modest about the pressures put upon him.

"You get used to it," he says, "people have to adapt to things."

 Alan Howard

He has that distinctive foggy voice, a voice which at times reminds one of a half-muffled circular saw; tall, well proportioned, and with a definite "presence", his exceptional theatrical abilities make him an obvious selection as one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his day.

He has never been to drama school, and began his career at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry as a general stage assistant. At that time he felt the top of his tree would be an assistant stage manager. Not having been through the normal preparatory mill, he feels unsure about influences on him, even about what "identity" he has reached.

"It keeps developing, you never actually arrive at an identity."

When he first took on this awesome quintet, it meant four consecutive first nights, which he found "awful". Henry VI ages from 15 - 50 in the three plays, and when they're done on consecutive nights, he says: "You can actually feel yourself aging over the days, just naturally you're getting older."


"But I do think the trilogy is great. No one has performed it for almost a quarter of a century, anywhere. It starts off like a cartoon strip, the French and English thumping hell out of each other, then it turns inwards to the family feuding. Lots of cliffhangers......."

Away from Shakespeare for a lunchtime pint, Alan Howard is most excited when talking about Shakespeare. He lives his work on stage and off, and talks of the bard as being "remarkable."

"Because his characters aren't consistent, you can't point to one and say, he's a good one, or he's a baddie, all sorts of conflicts are going on."

"The theatre is about blood, brain, and balls, and you show me anyone else who can bring them all together like he does."

Coriolanus is also rarely performed, yet it is says Howard, one of Shakespeare's most political, and disturbing plays.

"It's very bleak, and rather than give us guidelines it tends to throw it all into our lap. The tragedy in it is what's left behind, and people find this difficult to take, it's not removed enough for them. It's a remarkable play."

On stage, the black leather-clad Howard oozes a violent, sexual nature, striding round the dark malevolent set, his words spat out in half supressed fury.

"To do it in Newcastle will be really interesting. Hardly anyone likes touring when it's one week jobs, but this is like a real season, and unlike a tour, there's sure to be a feedback, which is important."

"It is only when you have a confident company, as we do now, that you do bold things like go to Newcastle for five weeks."

Others in the company talk with respect about Howard's remarkable stamina. Few actors would tackle his work-load, yet he turns it to sound almost like an advantage.

"The contrast between the roles can be an inspiration. Also, having three plays for Henry VI gives time for an actor to develop the part."


Howard's generation of actors has undoubtedly brought Shakespeare to a wider, less select audience. He himself talks about, "its peculiar advantages."

"What I mean is that by watching good theatre we often learn more in the real sense than through all the official processes. I think being made aware of truths and values in this way is always superior to a society where such things are imposed, where we are told by an authority. Give a child a new toy, and he will play with it all day. People should be given new toys, that's what real culture is about."

"And people criticise Shakespeare because he doesn't always get his historical facts right. I say, so what? Look at his language, look what else he offers."

After almost ninety minutes, there's the realisation that we've talked almost exclusively about Shakespeare, and little about Alan Howard.

As the conventional interview goes, very little of the required ground has been covered. You could say we know not much about the man. Except I feel we know a great deal.

Peter Mortimer.

The Newcastle Journal, 19.1.1978.

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