In the Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden, a small space that the Royal Shakespeare Company uses for intimate and experimental productions, a new play by C.P. Taylor called Good is providing audiences with an absorbing and unsettling evening.
The play decribes the rise of Nazism through the character of a German professor whose unshakeable self-absorption allows him to confront each new horror with the amiable equanimity of a good man. A shambling, bespectacled intellectual in patched trousers at the beginning, he is by the end unchanged except that he wears full Nazi rig and has just become a functionary at Auschwitz.
The professor is played by Alan Howard, who at 44 is probably Britain's leading Shakespearean actor and the first man ever to play the kings in all of Shakespeare's history plays, except Henry IV, in which he played Prince Hal. Next month in London he will return to Richard II and Richard III, already acclaimed at Stratford. Good marks one of his rare excursions into contemporary theatre; rare, he says, because of logistics rather than preference.
"I get locked in the Shakespeare thing and I never seem to get out of them because I'm never available," he said.
He joined the RSC in 1966 and in 1973 left for a year to do two modern plays, one by the author of Good.
"Good started at one stage as a theatre project for children, would you believe, then it started to involve Taylor's mother and his crisis with his mother. Then I think he started reworking the play with me in mind," Mr. Howard said in RSC headquarters at the Aldwych. "At the beginning I thought why must we go back to the Third Reich again. Then I thought there is potential here for the only great contemporary tragedy I know. The title page says Good. A Tragedy by C.P. Taylor. That's very unusual for a contemporary writer. The RSC press office started by labelling it a comedy with music because they were frightened about selling tickets."
One of the effects of the play is that the cast members now feel their skin prickle when they hear the word "good." "Ever since we've done it we'd tried not to use that word - a word which is banal, trivial, unthought about. The word 'good' to me is no longer the same."
Howard sees the professor as a sort of Everyman. "By the end the audience thinks I could be that guy. I am that guy." This self-recognition, he says, is one of the keys to the tragedy. "It does give people hope, the feeling that you can go on from tragedy to the next stage."
That tragedy can give hope is mysteriously true. Alan Howard's approach is one of insights rather than of detailed analysis. Shakespeare's soliloquies, he says, are too often taken as blueprints. "I think the soliloquies are the revelations we have in the middle of the night and we say to ourselves that is what we should be. I don't think the next day when eating their cornflakes people ever remember that revelation although it may affect them."
He used this approach in playing Henry V after being the younger Henry, Prince Hal, in Henry IV. "A lot of commentators have said they are not the same man. I think the soliloquy in which he says what he is going to be in the future has been misunderstood."
Hal's cold-blooded soliloquy, Howard says, is a reflection of his problems, not a blueprint to action. When he takes action, as in rejecting Falstaff, it is because he must. "Falstaff is really behaving outrageously," Howard says. "You're really moving into the area of Falstaff watering down the penicillin and selling it at black market prices.
"The process in Henry V seems to me very similar. I don't think Henry V is the Renaissance complete man of the Olivier film, which at the time was what people needed to see, but a man confronted with the problems of responsibility that we just don't realise people in power have."
The St. Crispin's day speech, says Howard, is not a matter of rousing the troops but of telling them of their individual responsibility. "Crispin's day is a revelation to him. He talks to the soldiers as he used to talk in the tavern to persuade them that if each individual is responsible, then the collective is unbeatable. And it was."
As the RSC all-purpose Shakespeare hero, Alan Howard has had an extraordinary career. His acting is as disliked by some as irritating and mannered as it is admired by others. Offstage he is a pleasant and forgettably nice-looking man in glasses (he wears contact lenses for Shakespeare) without a trace of theatricality. He is quiet, courteous, articulate: a craftsman rather than a star.
His lack of theatricality comes perhaps from the fact that the theatre is in his blood: five generations of his family have been on the stage. A great-grandfather played Gravedigger to Irving's Hamlet, and both parents were actors. His great aunt on his mother's side is Fay Compton, his uncle was Leslie Howard.
Young Alan was not encouraged to take up acting and was positively discouraged from going to acting school, so he began by sweeping the stage at a repertory theatre in Coventry. Worried about his lack of formal acting education, he was persuaded by fellow actor Frank Finlay, who had gone to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, that one learns best from doing and from watching others.
"Certainly Olivier was an inspiration. Richardson was an inspiration. I remember Arthur Hill in the first night of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Uta Hagen was marvelous but he was extraordinary."
Howard's London career began in 1959 at the Royal Court in the then-revolutionary Wesker Trilogy. But he was out of style almost at once.
"I wasn't an obvious working-class actor like Albie Finney or Tom Courtenay. I did a lot of work with the Royal Court but then I had a bad time because I was out of work. I suppose I was angry. I didn't want to do drawing room comedies and I didn't reckon much on the West End.
"I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to do good plays and good work - there's that word 'good' again - I wanted to do contemporary plays but I was unfashionable. The only way I could get those jobs was by convincing people I was an actor. The classics I came to by default.
The Actor's Grail
Many of Howard's gifted contemporaries fell for the cinema and then just fell. "The movies became the actor's grail," he says. The flowering in the 1960s of the National Theatre and the RSC gave the young actor an alternative to films, Howard says. "With the establishment of these two companies no one makes a lot of money but you can live quite well and you have the chance to work and to improve your work with people you admire."
Once he finishes playing the two Richards this winter he would like to give Shakespeare a rest for 18 months or two years. "I don't think one should leave Shakespeare for more than two years," he said.
He still has three huge Shakespeare roles to do - Macbeth, Othello and Lear. His Hamlet, in 1970, was one of his few failures. "There was talk of doing it again but I sort of chickened out." The thought has not been discarded. "Redgrave did it at 50," Howard said.
He doesn't like to be labelled a Shakespeare actor - and indeed he has ranged very widely - but Shakespeare is what he will always come back to.
"Shakespeare, like all great writers, doesn't give answers but asks myriad questions, making us think of our own lives, say God is that me? The theatre must be for the delight and instruction of mankind. Shakespeare more than anybody else knows how to do it."