The Man Who Would Be Prince Hal

Alan Howard comes from acting families on both sides. But neither his father nor his mother wanted him to be an actor, and he never thought much about it until he was 11 or 12 years old and met a girl named Bella MacNeil.

"I was at a croft in the Outer Hebrides, and Bella was the crofter's daughter," he said. "Bella used to plague me with very large crabs, and she used to say, 'What are you going to be?' I said I am going to be King Arthur. She said, 'You can't be King Arthur because no such thing exists.'"

For the last year or so, Alan Howard has been Henry V, Prince Hal, Harry of Monmouth and every other nickname given to the central character in Shakespeare's three great historical plays.

Oh God, thy hand was here ...

New Yorkers are seeing only a third of the Royal Shakespeare Company's triple production - the Henry V. In London and Stratford-on-Avon, Mr Howard would sometimes do all three plays in one day - including Henry IV, Part I and II. The effort has welded him so literally into the role that, even at lunch in the staid and gray-haired premises of the Gramercy Park Hotel, his Henry was fully with him: in the groping, changeable, agonizing style, that is, in which he does the part, that of a man putting a crown on, flinching, taking it off, examining it, putting it back on at a different angle, pondering it, exercising it.

Take sardines. Mr. Howard, blond, pink-faced, full of nerves and foggy with jet-lag, slow-marched over the menu. "How do you prepare your sardines?" he asked the waiter at last.

"You take them out of a can," replied the waiter who had come up five or six times to try to take the order. "You put them on a lettuce leaf."

Mr. Howard regarded him suspiciously, peering over his half-glasses. It was the identical look - and the same glasses that he uses on stage, surrounded by bishops and nobles who all tell him that, of course, he must invade France, while he worries about legitimacy and dead bodies and the strength of his own character.

There is a faint defensiveness among the people putting on this production of Henry V. Among the younger English - and the Royal Shakespeare Company is mostly young - the play has jingoistic overtones. To them it seems to contain - particularly in the traditional interpretations - a flaunting of national grandeurs that no longer exist and probably pretty immoral to start with.

Terry Hands, the director, and Mr. Howard have seen in the play some very different possibilities, a way of working out on stage the whole range of moral and psychological questions that arise when one man is faced with the need to exercise power.

"We live in a beaurocratic time," Mr. Howard said. "How long will people keep on saying, 'It's not my job, it's somebody else's,' instead of , 'Ought I to be doing it myself?'

"Henry is frightened for himself and for his people. And, you see, people in high positions are assumed to be iron men.

"I doubt that they are," he continued, "in fact I know they are not, and they ought not to be. Because that's the assumption behind our lack of responsibility: that there's somebody tougher, higher up, who knows how to make decisions."

With his Henry, Mr. Howard is acting out an essay in how power is constructed out of an honorable hesitance. It is an idea that troubles and fascinates him, and has been endlessly discussed among the company members ever since they first began rehearsing.

Over this time, Mr. Howard's initial reserve about the play has totally vanished.

"Shakespeare has been able to write not just conventional comedy and tragedy, but with these plays he does what we would call documentaries, and does them in a way that takes everybody into account. I'm not talking about truthful history or accurate history, but the power to convey persons in a rightly middle area."

After its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the company will take Henry V on a tour of Europe. Why didn't they visit other American cities and why didn't they do Henry IV, Parts I and II, as they have been doing in England?

The answer is money. Traveling for relatively short runs to a number of American cities is expensive. And to bring the much larger company needed for the three plays is even more expensive. This, even though, to the actors' fury, they do not travel by scheduled flights, but are wedged into tourist charters.

Richard Eder

New York Times, 23.4.1976.

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