"I believe in lies," says Alan Howard, in his persona as Gabriel in Frank McGuinness's powerful Gates of Gold at the Gate Theatre. Gabriel is a renowned English actor and designer who passes himself off as Irish. he enjoys a close personal and professional relationship with Conrad, an equally renowned English director. Yet Gabriel and Conrad, despite the obvious parallels, are not Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. "The only biographical fact is that they are two gay men who founded a theatre," says Howard. "The play is sort of inspired by the fact that MacLiammoir and Edwards were around. As an actor one is obviously influenced by an awareness that MacLiammoir and Edwards were - for Frank - the genesis of the two characters. But one doesn't want in any way to try to represent them. I didn't want to get into the area of replication. It's not what the play is about."
What the play is about is a man who is dying. "It's about a form of marriage which could be applied to two people of whatever gender or whatever combination, and what it is that keeps them going and fighting right to the very end," says Howard. "Despite a great deal of denial, it's about believing and what you believe, and what is truth and what is a lie. It's how one man's lies may be another man's truths and vice versa."
Gabriel - like MacLiammoir - belongs to a time when actors were larger than life. Who they were was as much a role as any character they played. Their only reality was artifice. "I try to represent an idea of the Edwardian actor, as Gabriel is very much of that period," says Howard. "Actors were expected to be some extraordinary creation off-stage as well as on. So one is trying to look at that sort of personality.
Howard's own movie star uncle Leslie Howard lived just such a double life, with tragic consequences. Leslie Howard, shy and gentlemanly, became one of the great Hollywood icons, forever associated with the role of Ashley - the man let down so badly by Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind. "He was a darling flirt," actress Joan Blondell once recalled. "He'd be caressing your eyes and have his hand on someone else's leg at the same time. He just loved ladies." Returning to England during the war, Howard - both of whose parents had been Hungarian immigrants - made trips to neutral Spain and Portugal, propagating the Allied cause and using his star appeal as a cover for clandestine activities. "He was involved with a lady in Madrid who was a famous German spy," says Alan. "I don't know what else he was up to. But he was on Goebbels' hit list." The heroism he epitomised in movies like Pimpernel Smith, The 49th Parallel, The Lamp Still Burns and The First of the Few carried over into his actual life, turning him into an emotional figurehead for a beleaguered England.
A party was given for him in Lisbon in 1943 the night before he was to fly back to London. Some gypsy dancers were to perform for him. "The leading dancer went up to his table and said, I am not dancing in front of this man tonight," recalls Alan. "Everyone was upset and demanded to know why. The dancer replied, I don't dance in front of this man, he has death in his eyes."
The next morning Howard boarded flight KLM777 to London. Sitting beside him was his accountant, a big man who used to smoke lots of cigars. The plane was shot down by German Messerschmitt fighters. There were no survivors. Winston Churchill was flying the same day. The implication is that Howard's plane was used as a decoy.
The commander of the Messerschmitts that shot him down was later captured. "Rex Harrison was one of the RAF Intelligence officers to question him," says Alan Howard. "He told Harrison that the squadron had reported their interception of KLM777. Normally they'd be told, if it was a civilian aircraft, to let it carry on its way. This time the order was different. Destroy at all costs, they were told."
Howard has no memories of his uncle other than images from his movies. "I was six when he was shot down," he says. "Although I'd have met him as a child, I can't remember him."
Leslie Howard had only an indirect influence on Howard becoming an actor. "I concentrated much more on theatre from the word go, I think partly because he'd been so successful in movies," he tells me. "One didn't want to follow that path. I know his son did and was not too happy."
There was far more acting on his mother's side of the family, going back to his great-great-grandfather, Henry Mackenzie. "Not far away from the old vagabond idea of strolling-players, so to speak," he says. The playwright* Compton Mackenzie - whose plays included Whisky Galore - was his great-uncle and godfather. "He was devoted to my grandmother. My mother was born in America and sent back as a young girl of 19 when my grandfather married again. Compton took her under his wing. In a sense I regarded him as my grandfather. It was all very much one of those family things."
Alan Howard first acted at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, where his striking bearing and superb diction made an immediate impact. "It was only a fortnightly rep, but they did a lot of new work - which was unusual in those days," he says. "Normally you just did stock and pot-boilers, or whatever you could to get bums on seats." He topped the bill in the first production of Arnold Wesker's trilogy of Roots, Chicken Soup With Barley and I'm Talking About Jerusalem, which transferred to the Royal Court in London, just at the start of the angry young man or kitchen sink revolution that was to shock English theatre out of the staid conventions of drawing room drama. Howard's rapid rise also coincided with the emergence of a new generation of creative directors inspired by world theatre, notably the Berliner Ensemble and the Moscow Arts. Trevor Nunn memorably directed him as the voluptuary in a landmark production of the Restoration [sic] drama The Revenger's Tragedy in 1966. He toured Europe in Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Terry Hands made him the focus for a mammoth production of all Shakespeare's History plays at Stratford in the 1970s. He played King Lear for Peter Hall.
"Very exciting work was done in the 1960s and 1970s up to the 1980s," he says. "But now it's all slightly different again. I don't know realyy quite what's going on. British theatre is going through a difficult time with the ascent of all sorts of amazing technological things - the TV, the video, and the explosion of the whole pop culture, the whole celebrity circuit which is now everywhere."
While many of his contemporaries - and leading directors like Sam Mendes, Richard Eyre and Stephen Daldry - have gone to Hollywood, Howard chooses to remain in theatre. "I'm fascinated by the film thing, but it's never come my way particularly," he says. "Now I'm older maybe I'll do the odd cameo role." Like being the voice of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. "Film is a director's medium," he says. "Whereas on stage the actors become the surrogate auteur, because they have to create a play afresh each performance. They are to some extent in control amongst themselves."
He's hooked on the gamble of live performance, the sense that what happens each night is of that moment. "It's truth is only in the second in which it takes place," he says. "The event that takes place on the stage is perhaps not as important as the persons who witness it. Because it is they who then make it their myth of what it was they saw. It becomes thair experience. So you're on the lookout for something - and it doesn't happen all the time - which could be very rare indeed and may never ever happen again."
It's what lured him to the Gate (he last performed in Dublin playing Mephistopheles in Dr. Faustus at the Abbey in 1970). "Frank's text is a sort of chamber play, but my God, what goes on inside it is as big and as wide as you can imagine it. The resonances are huge and wonderfully exciting."
The brilliance of Gates of Gold is that it allows the audience in. It has come out of Frank McGuinness's imagination. The actors give it life. "But the final part of it is you and everyone else going along to look at it," says Howard. "It couldn't become a play unless it was that circle."
The Sunday Tribune, 12.5.02