When the cast of The Bewitched first confronted 'this great colossus of a play', Alan Howard says, they were 'engaged, excited, but very frightened. "Where do we begin?" Rather than actually starting to do it, we spent the first fortnight having a kind of seminar, chaired by Terry Hands, reading it, talking about it, reading and talking about that society in Spain and its ideas, getting terms of reference. We unearthed a great deal. For instance, I'd always thought of the Inquisition as purely evil, but did you know that people paid to have their faith tested? "Look, I feel a touch of the heresies coming on, have you got a cell to spare? I want the best people working on me." The torturers were earnest. The Inquisition was not just a group of fanatics, it was a vast beaurocracy, with thousands of files. It makes one wonder about contemporary society.'
'I think with all good plays one needs to get to the position very soon of being able to trample on the pages, or the pages are going to trample over you. You pick up the words, the situations, throw them about, stamp on them, and if they stand up then the people involved have a degree of security in which to carry on.'
When you are trampling on the pages, does the presence of the author perhaps inhibit you? 'On the contrary, it encouraged us. Peter responded to our interest in the play with great enthusiasm. The Bewitched is a very Jacobean play in many ways. They weren't afraid to take huge themes and scenes and fling one up against the other, like great piles of granite, a religious scene followed by scenes of life and death, authority by monarchy, instances and moods changing in a flash. I think that the greatest moments of theatre contain everything we have without ourselves, intellectual, emotional, sexual.
"We tend to be a bit dictated to on this question of styles. People keep getting up and theorizing: this is the way theatre is, and within a week someone else comes up with another thing. One of the fascinations of working with Peter Brook, for instance, is that he never attempts to throw out two thousand years of theatre, and say, the whole thing now is this. All those past avenues are available to us, and they intercommunicate. In ordinary life we don't all go around behaving in the same way. Each of us is different in different situations. We can sometimes be very intense and passionate about something: but then we have to go and order the milk.
"Peter Brook is always looking for the freshest kind of expression. If you do something, he's quick to see it and say, 'OK, I know you can do that, now show me something you can't do.' In the Dream he would speak about 'the secret play' ; as I interpreted that, he meant the solitary cell of imagination in each of us that responded to the play but was also in us individually all the time on a level that none of us could describe. He never wanted to investigate that cell too much, for fear that it would wither if you penetrated it, wouldn't function any longer as imagination. I loved the permission to have that area of mystery in one's work, because if everybody in a play has it, it releases similar areas of response in the audience too. When we go to the theatre, that indescribable feeling down your spine you can get is when your own imagination and an actor's collide or combine."
Alan Howard played the double part of Oberon and Theseus in Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970, at Stratford, then in London, and then on the recent world tours, much of the time in non-English speaking countries. Did the thrill in the spine take place across the barrier of language? "It did most of all in Eastern Europe. There we had astonishing responses, tears of joy and hugging. Any theatrical event in those countries is regarded with great seriousness. They questioned everything, almost too much. But it was nothing short of a revolution. People said, 'for at least ten or fifteen years our theatre will be affected by it.' "
Flourish (RSC Magazine) /Issue 1, 1974