Classics actor running out of Kings

Alan Howard has emerged lately as England's leading classical actor, but he's running out of kings.

At the moment he is playing two Shakespearean kings, Richard II and the humpbacked Richard III, for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Either role by itself would be the top of many actors ambitions. Yet for Howard they're a mere capstone on a mountainous achievement. He is the first actor to play the lead roles in all eight of Shakespeare's major history plays.

At 44, this slim, bespectacled actor has played so many kings and noblemen that there are hardly any left, barring King Lear. In the process, Howard has taken over the mantle of the titled titans who made English classical acting renowned - Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Redgrave, now all in their 70s.

"Great classical actors are a rarity even in Britain's rich theatre," noted critic Charles Spencer. "Howard is indisputably among their number."

"Great parts fall to him like ripe fruit," said a Sunday Times writer. Another said his "glittering and versatile achievement" makes people wonder "why he is not more famous. Why isn't he more of a star?"

It's a fair question. Alan Howard remains curiously unknown even though he tackles successfully every kind of acting challenge, from comedy ancient or modern to the darkest classical tragedy.He makes Richard II - not the most magnetic of Shakespeare's kings - a compelling figure. His Richard is an actor king, playing every action to an audience. Yet Howard becomes more human the further the king falls. His reedy voice deepens as Richard's enemies grow stronger. He wrings sympathy for this once-thoughtless king as he resigns his crown and is imprisoned to meet his death.

Richard III, by contrast, is usually portrayed as a simple villain. Howard is malignant, all right, but so smooth and plausible he fools audiences, like the other characters, into extending a kind of sympathy.

Yet a few weeks earlier this same actor was totally convincing as a well-meaning professor trapped in the web of Hitler's Germany. He once seemed born to play the brainstorming actor in Wild Oats. Over Christmas he'll be miming the part of a dragon which has lost its voice.

Fame hasn't marched hand in hand with ability because, at least in part, Alan Howard has been a 'company' actor with the RSC for 15 solid years.

This has brought a certain renown. He impressed audiences all over the world, for instance, in Peter Brook's famous circus version of Midsummer Night's Dream - naturally Howard played both the Duke and the Fairy King. He has a loyal following at home. But he has made few movies, a recent television series was very brief, and one must see him on the stage or not at all.

Off stage he is the least actorly of actors, seemingly tongue-tied and diffident. He lives quietly with journalist Sally Beauman and their 6-year-old daughter [sic].*

Howard is the fifth generation of his acting family - actor Leslie Howard was his uncle, novelist Compton Mackenzie another. Physically he seems to lack star quality - he is tall and ginger-haired, his features regular but slightly aquiline, his eyebrows skimpy. He is not handsome or physically magnetic. Yet on stage he has that magical presence which rivets attention. His technique is flawless, his quickness a wonder, his intelligence evident. Beyond that, Alan Howard has an ability few actors share to reveal the mind behind the words. One critic said he plays Richard II as if he had lost his script. He seems to be making it up as he goes, inventing every speech for the first time, somehow showing audiences the process of thought behind each idea.

There are dangers in this technique, and occasionally it jars. But most people who love the theatre would agree with writer Tom Sutcliffe, who said: "There are some actors, and Alan Howard is one of them, whom I would go to see in anything."

Gregory Jensen

UPI (Press Agency) Release, December 1981.

* son


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