7:00 AM BST
06 Jun 2011
By: Rupert Christiansen
Number one hero: Alan Howard with Matilda Ziegler in The School for Scandal
Photo: ALASTAIR MUIR
Controversy is mounting over Deborah Warner's production of The School for Scandal at the Barbican (it runs until June 18). After a panning from the critical establishment, Warner mounted a spirited retaliation in two newspapers last week. Now I want to put in my pennyworth.
I don't always engage with Warner's theatre work. I can understand those who found this staging too busily detailed in places, and in need of some cutting, but overall I found it an irresistibly energetic and brilliantly stylish show. Directed with bravado and imaginatively designed by Jeremy Herbert, it slyly makes the Georgian period contemporary and vice versa, while bursting at the seams with sharply characterised performances.
Best of all it boasts the great Alan Howard as the maritally challenged Sir Peter Teazle. Illness (diabetes) has meant that we haven't seen much of Howard over the past decade, and I fear that today's theatregoers may have forgotten or may be unaware of this actor's marvellous art. What are its qualities? As E.M Forster said of the poet Constantine Cavafy, Howard seems "to stand at a slight angle to the universe", wry, sardonic and sceptical.
His voice is a palette of possibilities, ranging from the subtlest pianissimo to a trumpeting crescendo, and he has the supreme gift of being able to convey the volatility of inner mental life - evident here when he mints afresh that all-too familiar punchline "Lady Teazle, by all that is damnable" and suggests a brainstorm of shock, disappointment, anger and sadness.
I have a personal debt to Howard. In the Seventies, when he was attached to the RSC, he was my number one theatrical hero, and for sheer grandeur or command I doubt I shall ever see an Oberon, Henry V, Achilles or Coriolanus to match him. Such was my veneration that I had the temerity to write to him when I was called upon to play the (not very onerous) role of Theseus in a student production of A Midusmmer Night's Dream.
My letter was an outpouring of pretentious A-level existentialist nonsense, asking his advice: how could I make an impression with this role, how could I make it mean something? Many would have chucked my rant into the bin, but God bless him, Alan Howard had the grace to take an adolescent nitwit seriously, replying with six pages of such patient kindness and calm common sense as to earn him a passport to heaven. The fact that my performance remained dire beyond description is neither here nor there: I was just no good, and nothing he said could have turned dross into gold.
Many years later, I saw him on the street and tried to thank him - I don't think he remembered the letter and, being a very shy man, he merely mumbled politely and looked faintly embarrassed. I only hope, if he reads this now, that he realises that the trouble he went to made a big difference to a silly youth.
Since he left the RSC 30 years ago, Howard's career has been bumpy. He was a coruscating Higgins in Pygmalion at the National Theatre, but his Lear and Macbeth weren't considered successful, and his highly wrought style doesn't transfer well to film or television. Looking back at his curriculum vitae, with its long breaks and silences, one suspects many lost opportunities and perhaps personal problems, too. But at the ripe age of 73, Alan Howard needs no apology. He is a king among actors, and his Peter Teazle is a sublime piece of comedy, the shining gem at the heart of a fresh and exhilarating piece of theatre.