Thane Glorious

Alan Howard, one of our great Shakespearean actors, spentmost of the eighties off stage. Graham Hassell celebrates his return to the classical repertoire in the National Theatre's Macbeth.

Richard Eyre's production of Macbeth, currently playing in the Olivier, may not have garnered glowing reviews from every reviewer, but critical concensus amounted to a vote of confidence in Alan Howard's performance in the principal role. The Spectator waxed lyrical about the actor's ability to find "a distant poetry in everything he says and does", the Guardian extolled his "extraordinary gift for a speech's architecture [and] the ability to pounce on a key phrase", while the Observer observed a "haunted and poetic performance ...... as the Scottish thane."

Implicit in this warm acclaim is the 'welcome back' to an actor returning to the classical repertoire after an absence of more than a decade. A few years back theatrical feathers were much ruffled by a perceived decline in the standard of Shakespearean verse speaking, even on the subsidised stages. Now, with Howard restored to a major role and with Robert Stephens (another classical actor returning from some personal brink) offering his incarnation of Lear in Stratford, this critical dissent has been well and truly silenced.


Howard first made his entrance onto the London stage, very much the young actor, in the early 60s.
"I suppose I wasn't quite in time to be classed 'an angry young man'," he says. "That was really the mid- to late-fifties. By 1960/61 things had moved on to what was known as 'kitchen sink dramas', and that was especially true of the Wesker trilogy I played in at the Royal Court. Arnold was writing at the same time as the angry young men but wasn't considered one of their number. The plays nevertheless gave me my first London successes for which I am naturally grateful."

Thenceforward, Howard's career was not so much meteoric as more a steady plod to the top of his profession. By 1970 he was Trevor Nunn's Hamlet and a year later he made his New York debut playing Theseus/Oberon in Peter Brook's celebrated production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Another decade down the road and Howard had swept up most of the important theatrical awards and was the RSC's blue-eyed boy with an almost ubiquitous presence at the top of every cast list the company printed.

The memory touches those quasi-regal parts of a man renowned for his kings. You feel his first person plural has a singular construction and refers not to other cast members but to just himself.
"We were lucky to be part of a milieu which might be seen now as the Aldwych heyday, offering a year at Stratford and a year in London and often tours abroad to Europe or America. Over a four year period we completed the full cycle of the central history plays, starting with the Henry VI trilogy and ending with Richard II and Richard III back-to-back. Sadly it was Richard II which rang down the curtain on the RSC's time at the Aldwych, although their commercial production of C P Taylor's Good followed it. It meant, in fact, I was in the last subsidised and the first unsubsidised RSC productions there."

After the commercial run of Good, with which he again went to Broadway, and Stephen Poliakoff's RSC Mermaid transfer Breaking the Silence, 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.
"It was a conscious decision. I felt I'd done so much and I just wanted a break from the rigours that the theatre imposes. When you're rehearsing all day and performing every night you're almost divorced from the real world and eventually you crave to get back to it, just to be normal for a while. And then, at the time, my child was no longer a baby and the irregular hours meant hardly seeing each other....."

There's a certain irony about the fact that the wilderness years were ended by a Swedish variation on the kitchen sink dramas that first brought Howard to prominence. This was Scenes From A Marriage, Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of his own six-part television play which opened in Chichester in the summer of 1990. The power of Howard's presence in this play was largely the reason for its transfer to the Wyndham's Theatre for an unscheduled West End run. Then, last year, Howard joined the National Theatre to play Professor Higgins in Howard Davies' production of Shaw's Pygmalion. It became a sell-out success and played for ten months. There seemed little doubt now that Howard would once again rise through the ranks from kitchen sink to kingship, eschewing aprons for ermine and prose for verse. And now, sure enough, with Macbeth, one of the country's front rank actors is not just back in the saddle but firmly settled on the throne.

From the outset Alan Howard's thane is questing and insecure and soon seems to be tasting hell itself, standing within a ring of fire with a thin veil of smoke twisting around him and curling to the flies. The nub of Howard's Macbeth is motivation: what makes him commit such atrocities? Howard's performance suggests the answer is twofold: in an age more pagan than god-fearing, he takes the witches' predictions as gospel. Although tentative in the good king Duncan's court and suspicious of easy advancement (Howard doing his mock surprise 'who me?' expression), he already has the air of an Oscar nominee with an inside tip of his imminent win, all brittle smile and dagger eyes. And in his final duel with Macduff, he displays the arrogance of immortality, merely going through the motions of self-defence, flicking his sword rather than wielding it.

Anastasia Hille's Lady Macbeth, an alabaster blonde in figure-hugging black velvet and twenty years her husband's junior, provides the other reason for over-weaning ambition. Howard is not best known for his body language or histrionics, but here he clearly desires his wife to literal distraction. In one memorable scene as the Macbeths rinse blood from their hands kneeling before a cold water tub, Howard lets fly a high-pitched warble heralding a descent to hell that chills the audience to its collective soul. Elsewhere Howard is marvellous in his almost schizoid mood swings - philosophical on the battlements of Bob Crowley's high timber fortress as he reaches into black night for the dagger he sees before him, or barking mad when Banquo's ghost rises from the ground to usurp Macbeth's place at the banquet table. Here, to my mind, is a great Macbeth given by a great actor now truly in his prime. Miss it at your peril.

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