The Royal Line

Alan Howard is a new lion of the English stage and lions are rare beasts. He has played Hamlet. he toured the world in Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Two years ago at Stratford, in one day, he played the prince and then king in the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. Today, also with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and also in one day, morning, afternoon and evening, he is playing the king in the three parts of Henry VI: and that is infinitely more difficult because the plays are early and very much unknown.

We met at Stratford, first in the late afternoon between a matinee of Part II and an evening performance of Part III, and then for dinner afterwards. In conversation he was as quietly diffident and at times plain hesitant as any actor I have ever met but then that is exactly what you would wxpect of a man who has been known , both in his private and professional life, to roar as becomes a lion.

In the afternoon, he lounged deep in an armchair, out of costume but with the great gilt cross he had worn on stage still hanging round his neck and shining on his breast. At the age of eight, he said, he had played the piano. "God save the King?" I asked. "Mozart sonatas," he said.

Both his mother and father were actors. He was conceived at Cheltenham Rep. He spent much of his youth either staying with friends, or at boarding school. The school at eight was mainly for girls, who stayed until they were much older but there were perhaps a dozen boys, who were expected to leave much earlier for their preparatory schools. He remembers that girls of 13 and 14 were more or less indistinguishable, to his eyes, from the female staff and recalls a vaguely quietised sexuality.

Precocious at eight? -

"Seven. Even six actually."

They shared under-table shelters during air raids. He remembers blanket-like dressing gowns and slippers with pom poms, and that one night when there was a storm as well as an air raid and the door shook with the wind, he and the young women were convinced the entire German was outside, battering at the door to come in.

Holidays were spent on Barra in the Outer Hebrides with his uncle, Compton Mackenzie. The great man was daunting. Each morning he used to admit the young man to an audience, as it were, at aboutb ten o'clock, when he would lie in bed surrounded by newspapers and enquire what his nephew intended to do that day. He used to travel up to Barra from Kings Cross with a label around his neck. The journey and the freedom of the island - the swimming and climbing and the trips to other islands - are his dominant childhood memory.

It was on Barra that, at the age of seven, to a girl named Bella, he made his statement of vocation. She asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said, "King Arthur." That, she said, was impossible since there had been a real King Arthur. "Then I'll pretend." he said.

At his public school, Ardingly, in Sussex, he did appear in the school plays, though he was never Lear, partly because the year they did that he was a bit too young and partly because by hierarchic tradition the king had to be played by the head boy, who was very good at it, but later went to work for Shell.

His early years were a strange mixture of good schools, the prosperity of his famous Mackenzie uncle and the periodic poverty of his parents. "It was part of one's life. There'd always be this line at the end of every letter that one wrote home, about, I do hope that Daddy has got a job, or that Mummy has got a job," and his mother would reply that they had had two days filming, or some such thing. His parents did not, therefore, at first encourage his ambition to go on the stage but in thr end he did, getting himself a job at £4 10s a week with the Belgrade, Coventry, not even as assistant stage manager but as a carrier and painter of sets and props, waiting to be made an ASMI, and then waiting to be given small parts.

He thereby became the fifth generation on his mother's side to act. It is an astonishing theatrical lineage, beginning with his great great grandfather Henry Mackenzie, who left a family of Scottish ministers to go to London and play the gravedigger to Irving's Hamlet. His great grandfather made famous the part of Jack Rover in Wild Oats, which the Royal Shakespeare Company and Howard himself splendidly revived last year. Fay Compton is his great aunt.

That is all on the maternal side. His mother herself retired young and died young. But on his father's side there is a hardly less remarkable, though shorter, tradition. His father, Arthur Howard, was Jimmy Edward's stooge in Whacko!, and was in No Sex Please, We're British. His father's brother was no less an actor than Leslie Howard of Gone With The Wind and Brief Encounter*[sic], whom he met but does not remember. What he does remember are the circumstances of his uncle's death, in 1943, in a plane crash. "Shot down. No one could quite explain why. I suppose it was the first time someone I knew about ..... that is, the first time one got the smell of ........"

The first time he realised one could die? Yes, he said; except that one day at Virginia Water, early in the war, when he was staying with friends, two airmen came into the house, covered in blood, and he was hustled out of the way.

After the Belgrade, Alan Howard went, in 1962 to Chichester, and then, in 1966, to the Royal Shakespeare. And, at this point in the recital of his career, having eaten poached eggs on toast as a sort of high tea, he had to go off to dress for the evening performance of Part III.

During the afternoon conversation he had been full of silences, which is unusual in an actor talking about his career. When we met for dinner it was different. I told him that I had been sitting behind a Canadian who, when when Howard as Henry VI was murdered, remarked, "All the nice people have now been eliminated." At this Howard asked for a large Scotch, and then we had a little wine and he talked, at first about the shining 1968 performance of Troilus and Cressida, in which he probably began to really make his name.

He was Achilles: at first when all was bloody war, not stirring himself but queening it in his tent, but then, after the death of Patroclus, emerging slaughterously. His was a treacherous Achilles, bisexual and all camped-up, and most convincing. There was a great fuss about this interpretation but he thinks it was justified by the text. "Achilles is a pretty, sort of, extraordinary fellow in many ways. I mean, he's not the sort of usual thing you'd meet at a cocktail party, is he?"

When he played Hamlet, which was in 1970, he said acting could be disheartening, all the time trying to live up to characters who were greater than oneself. Did he still feel that? And, which followed, now he was playing a king, how far could he be a king and enter into the state of mind of a king? For the first, he replied, he was less disheartened now because he had learned to lose a lot of his own identity. As for the second, being a king, well, Shakespeare helped.

Yes. But this losing of identity. When he was rehearsing Hamlet he insisted on wearing mourning throughout the day, in the sense that he wore all black and kept it on. Earlier that day, that afternoon, he had retained the silver cross of Henry while he ate his poached eggs. Was that to preserve the kingship? - "I wonder. Yes. By the end he doesn't have a cross. He just has a piece of string (round his neck)). It's something I suppose which is terribly private to oneself, which I can't really quite explain. That has got something, though, of what I feel about the man."

And Howard does feel a great deal for the king, remarking, for instance, that no historian ever seems to want to write about Henry VI, only about the Wars of the Roses. And he is fascinated by the way in which the weak and at times saint-like Henry is himself fascinated, completely beguiled, by his hard French queen. Look, he says, this creature, the king, had probably been on his knees five or six hours a day, or else at his books, all cold showers and then he marries Margaret. Then she complains bitterly - she was expecting feasting, the tilt fields, banqueting, and it wasn't like that at all. But still the king became fascinated.

What were the occasions of that fascination? Daybeds with Margaret? - "Probably not very much. It's terribly difficult. I think there's a very weird love story. You take that funny line at the end of the Jack Cade rebellion, 'Come wife, let's in and learn to govern better.' " That he thought an extraordinary line. Mostly Henry called her Meg, sometimes Margaret, but at that moment he calls her, most intimately of all, "wife." I remarked that I did not think I would trust Margaret, to which Mr Howard gave what I suggest is the complete reply of a complete actor. He said, "Well, no. I don't know that I would if I was me. But I think as Henry, I'd trust her."

At about this time a Dutchman came up to the table and said he had been longing to see Howard after the show. He had liked the plays very much. "To see the whole big theatre and the tricks, it's rather impressive." He did a one-man show himself in Holland, with no sets. Mr Howard gravely thanked him.

We passed on to a little darkness. Like any rational man, Howard has his darknesses. I wondered if the manner in which he had some time ago spoken, "All the world's a stage" in As You Like It - a speech usually pronounced as a sedative, but declaimed bitterly by him - reflected his own views.

And one man in his time played many parts? - "Christ, that's pretty evident isn't it? He did suppose there was a little hypocrisy in the human condition, in himself, and in me. We agreed. We also agreed about superstition, at which we arrived in this way.

Mr Howard, asked how it felt to be a new lion, said he did not feel very new. Well, he is in his early forties, which is a good time for an actor, and he is soon to play Coriolanus, a part any actor of his stature is going to have to play; but he quite refused to talk about it. He would not talk about any play in rehearsal. He wonders if it is a fear of loss of essence.

At any rate, it would be in a way like mentioning the Scottish Play (the name of which I will not write either) in the theatre. That name had been inadvertantly spoken one day in 1975 when he was playing Hal in Henry IV. Without having performed the necessary exorcism, he went on, and in the duel scene with Hotspur a sword broke and 18 inches of stainless steel went into the only empty seat in the front row.

Just the other day he had made Trevor Nunn perform the exorcism after the name had been spoken. He said, "Sorry, Trevor, you'll have to do it." and Nunn had gone out of the room, knocked, come back, turned round three times, and said, as required, the worst word that came into his mind." What was it? - "It was sufficient."

Terry Coleman
The Guardian, 23.9.77.

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* Actually that was Trevor Howard!