Goings On

These days the royal progress of Alan Howard may be interrupted when he comes up for air between rehearsals or not at all. He's been dubbed the Hardest Working Actor of the Year and his life has become an almost unbreachable chainmail of rehearsals, performances, travel, more rehearsals. Each new season more testing than the last; another king, prince, or commander of men to inhabit and make his own. Mostly he has to juggle the parts in repertoire. If he sleeps at all he must dream Shakespeare.

Surfacing last week to talk to me, he looked scuffed and dishevelled but his courtesy was sartorial. Not a word out of place. That night he was putting off the sword of Henry V after a long and glorious run in the RSC's two big houses. In performance he was still wearing the crown of Henry VI; in rehearsal he had `assumed the armour of Coriolanus; and in the narrow breathing space between king and general he was taking a calm view of becoming Antony in the autumn.

When Stacey Keach's film commitments put him out of the running for Peter Brook's Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford, Howard's own commitments, to Coriolanus in London, seemed to rule him out, too. You couldn't expect an actor already fluttering the Volscians in Corioli to attend on Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra as well. Or could you? The RSC could and did. Performance schedules were rearranged so that Alan Howard could double in the two title roles in centres 90 miles apart.

This apparently punishing repertoire tends to put Howard in danger of becoming a statistical curiosity. Great parts fall to him like ripe fruit and whatever his private anguishes over doing them well, they are regular critical successes. What is the man made of?

Partly of his theatrical forebears. His great great grandfather changed his name to Henry Compton and played Gravedigger to Henry Irving's Hamlet. His great aunt is Fay Compton. His mother was Jean Compton the actress. His uncle is Leslie Howard. His father is the comedian Arthur Howard - until recently, and in bizarre contrast to his son's activities at the Aldwych, in "the world's greatest laughter-maker," No Sex Please - We're British at the theatre next door, the Strand.

Alan Howard's progress from footman at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, through the ranks has a text-book logic about it: the classic rise of the classical actor. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966, and the "young lion" reputation began to take hold after his glittering Lussurioso in The Revenger's Tragedy. In 1967 he took on Jaques in As You Like It. In 1968, the year he won the Most Promising Actor award, he was Edgar in King Lear, a controversial camp Achilles in Troilus and Cressida and Bartholomew Cokes in Bartholomew Fair. There was Hamlet and the Dream and Mephistopheles in 1969, Nikolai in Gorky's Enemies in 1972, a world tour of the Dream in 1973, then Prince Hal and the Henries, with the barnstorming Wild Oats in between.

Firmly locked into the Shakespeare canon, Howard makes it clear that there is nowhere he would rather be just now. "I would have liked to have done more contemporary plays but I am flattered and honoured, if you like, to be doing Shakespeare. Though I wouldn't like to think that this would be to the exclusion of all else."

He enjoys early drama. The telling, economical use of words suits his own precision of speech - a trait which sometimes leads to a mannered delivery, but also produces his finest lines. In conversation, there are long silences while he shapes his thoughts. Till you've got the measure of the silences as well as the words, his apparent hesitancy can be alarming. Suddenly he will tumble out ideas with manic intensity, chopping the air into little boxes with his hands. A surprising thing about off-stage Howard is his immense physical solidity and presence. How, you wonder, could a bulky man of 40 ever have crept into the trembling puny shell of the child-king HenryVI?

The marathon Henry VI trilogy, often performed in the compass of a single day, would have wrecked the physique and probably the spirit of a weaker man. In a different way, Coriolanus is another consuming part and Howard is consumed by it, jabbing away at its meaning in conversation as if in private combat. "People feel that its either a left-wing tract or a right-wing tract but it's hugely more complex than that." Almost legalistic in its use of language, he says. Coriolanus is a hired killer and very good at it, too. He doesn't want to be anything else. But who is manipulating him? The senate? His mother? The tribunes? And isn't it remarkable that the simple question "What's the matter?" comes up nine times? Then there is the obsession with lies. And what about the absence of a father? These are the questions Howard teases himself with.

"With Coriolanus Shakespeare leaves the audience to make what they can of it, unlike some other tragedies where he leads you by the hand. Here you have to decide for yourself. It is a hard, hard play."

Elizabeth Grice
The Sunday Times, 28.5.1978.

"Coriolanus" is previewing at the Aldwych from Wed. Opens Friday.

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