New York - "You don't really want all that bull about my family," smiles Alan Howard over lunch. The 33-year-old member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and one of its brightest new stars, plays the combined role of Oberon and Theseus in Peter Brook's revolutionary production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Howard is the nephew of Leslie Howard, remembered all over the world as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind. The pale, blond actor was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1943, but he's still remembered and a few feet from our table in Sardi's, there's a signed caricature of him.
He's also a source of embarrassment to Alan, the latest Howard to take to the boards. "It's a terrible joke in the company - my family," he says. For it includes not only Howards, but Comptons (his mother, Jean, who died ten years ago, was an actress), Mackenzies (as in Compton Mackenzie the writer), and Batemans.
Alan doesn't remember seeing his uncle. "Someone figured out that I must have been three the last time I saw him," he says. And he really doesn't resemble his uncle at all, which he thinks is a good thing.
"It was the undoing of my father," he says. His father, Arthur, sixteen years Leslie's junior, looked very much like his famous elder brother and he never got far in the theater. "And it didn't help my cousin Ronald either. (That's Leslie's son.) He makes more money selling Victorian paintings than acting."
But Alan is a reddish blond, with a ruddy complexion and rugged features. "I look more like the Comptons," he says. His great-aunt, Fay Compton, gave him a fantastic opening night gift last summer when he first played Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was the script of the John Barrymore Hamlet, with Barrymore's cuts and signatures of cast members, including Miss Compton's, for she was Barrymore's Ophelia.
When the Royal Shakespeare Company returns to London, after its whirlwind tour with the Dream, Alan will be playing both Hamlet and Theseus/Oberon in repertory. Last summer at Stratford that sometimes meant playing both roles in a single day.
It's gruelling work - or "a busy life," as he puts it. Most gruelling, perhaps, has been working on the trapezes, ropes and ladders that Brook uses for this production.
When rehearsals began in Stratford, Brook simply had an 18-foot scaffolding put up, with ropes and trapezes available for the actors' whims. Sometimes they bumped into each other. But no one has fallen - yet. And Alan Howard is very near-sighted. "What you don't see, you don't miss," he says hopefully.
Brook also introduced wire coils for imaginary forests, bringing the Dream out of its Victorian past of plywood forests and cutout flowers.
Moreover, everyone had to learn to transfer a spinning plate from wand to wand. The spinning plate supposedly holds the love potion that Oberon uses to cast a spell on his recalcitrant Titania and the troublesome pairs of lovers. "Everybody learned to do it," Alan says, "some picked it up immediately. It took me a week or two." And he must do it the most. But there's an alternative. When he misses - and he does - he shrugs and a stagehand proffers another plate from offstage.
Some critics have accused this production of being too gimmicky. Howard defends it. "These particular props don't get in the way of the audience's imagination because they're abstractions.
"And they don't matter - it's their availability. We did the play in Birmingham for students - in an empty room without any props - and it worked.
"I think of the play as a sphere. Within that sphere, there are hundreds of vertical lines going in different directions. In the center, there is a nucleus which is our imagination. We have to bridge the lines with our imagination.
"I think Peter has made that available to people - to make the connections in their own minds."
Chicago Tribune, 28.3.1971.