Winding up, the elastic band

Alan Howard uttered a single mild expletive as he stepped past the bags of cement which cluttered the entrance to the Almeida Theatre and surveyed the auditorium within.

With builders in visible residence and all the seats removed it seemed an unlikely place for this outstanding actor's return to the London stage after an absence of more than 18 months.

After all the Shakespearian kings, heroes and villains with the RSC, Howard is once again immersing himself in an epic, this time Homer's Iliad in Christopher Logue's vigorous and highly praised version of books 16-19, War Music.

Logue and Howard performed the work for one night only at the Warehouse before the RSC moved to the Barbican and have been eager to repeat the experience ever since. The Almeida has booked them for two weeks, from April 4, and Howard was obviously anxious that the latest phase of restoration would be completed in time.

"It's an extraordinary piece. We try to keep it as simple as possible so we can just let the words speak for themselves," said Howard.

Howard's commanding presence and eloquent voice seem ideally suited to the poem's descriptions of larger than life mythic heroes and tumultuous battles, but off-stage he remains as hesitant and apparently insecure as ever. Answering questions seems to cause him almost physical pain.

His career has recently taken a surprising change in direction. After 16, almost continuous, years with the RSC he left the company early last year when Good, the C.P. Taylor play for which he won the Standard's Best Actor award, ended its transferred run on Broadway.

Since then we have seen nothing of him, though he has not been idle. His Coriolanus for the BBC's Shakespeare series will be seen on April 21 and he has played a psychoanalyst in a William Humble play to be screened by the BBC in May.

But there have also been periods when he found himself out of work. "It's a perpetual dilemma. To some extent your availability is your greatest asset but there are times when you think, 'How long, Oh Lord, how long?'

"Stopping can bring its problems. The tension, the elastic band goes slack and you start to wonder whether you did these things, did you ever do anything at all, who have you been all this time."

Charles Spencer

The Evening Standard, 23.3.1984

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