The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.079 Monday, 23 February 2015
From: Charles Weinstein <
Date: February 23, 2015 at 11:31:48 AM EST
Subject: Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
[Editor’s Note: Both articles are from The Guardian. –Hardy]
Alan Howard: ‘A perfectly-tuned musical instrument made flesh’
It is a commonplace memorial to say that the like of the departed will never be seen again. But in the case of Alan Howard, that seems certain to be the case.
His death, at the age of 77, comes at a time when even the most accomplished modern Shakespearean performer is likely to appear in Broadway musicals or big-budget movies in between their Richards and their Lear. Howard, however, was fundamentally a classical stage actor who, in the tradition of John Gielgud and Paul Scofield, was a perfectly-tuned musical instrument made flesh, producing an extraordinary range of notes – bass to alto, fortissimo to pianissimo – to orchestrate the score of the text, especially Shakespearean verse.
Apart from King John, Howard played all of Shakespeare’s British kings: Richards, Macbeth, all three Henrys and Lear. Monarchical casting came so naturally to him that as early as 1971, when the BBC was casting an adaptation of Churchill’s history of England, he was signed up to be King Alfred.
He was always a pleasure to watch on stage, but the biggest thrill was in the listening. There has recently been a rumbling media controversy over the escalating tendency of actors to mumble, but no member of his profession was less likely to face that charge than Howard. While psychological realism interested him, his ideal was verbal clarity and resonance.
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As a younger actor for the Royal Shakespeare Company – the official historian of which, Sally Beauman, he married – Howard also had compelling physical vigour. His frequent RSC director, Terry Hands, at one stage had a penchant for dressing the actors in black leather, and Howard was able to carry off this high-risk fashion.
He also thought and spoke intelligently about theatre. In one of the most illuminating TV arts programmes ever made, an edition of ITV’s The South Bank Show, he gave an interview about Shakespeare performance while actually performing. Melvyn Bragg sat in Howard’s RSC dressing room during a production of Coriolanus and the actor would intermittently rush in, sweating and breathless, for a towel-down or costume change, during which he would discuss Shakespearean text and performance method, even as his next cue approached on the dressing room intercom. It was a thrilling off-stage insight into an electrifying on-stage style.
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Such was the admiration and affection in which Alan Howard was held that, when illness latterly made mobility difficulty, thoughtful admirers found ways of keeping him working: in static Beckett and Sophocles roles in theatre, and on radio. In 2007, to mark the actor’s 70th birthday, a friend, the writer Julian Barnes, organised a quintet of specially-written new pieces for performance on BBC Radio 4, including On Dover Beach, a monologue by Tom Stoppard about the poet Matthew Arnold.
In those almost-last roles, Howard was all voice, which was fitting as, for all his presence and power on stage, the core of his performing greatness was vocal. It would be a fitting tribute if some of his radio work – either the birthday project or his Radio 3 recordings of Christopher Logue’s Homer translation, War Music – were now repeated. Unlikely to see his like again, we will definitely never hear it.
Alan Howard Obituary
When the great Shakespearean actor Alan Howard, who has died aged 77, returned to the stage after a five-year absence in 1990, all of his special qualities came into focus, ironically, in a piece of Victorian hokum by Henry Arthur Jones. The occasion of this revival of The Silver King at Chichester was a reminder that the history of British theatre is, in the first place, written by its actors.
Howard had played almost every Shakespearean king (and Coriolanus) for the Royal Shakespeare Company over 16 years from 1966, as well as the double of Oberon and Theseus in Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in an all-white gymnasium; Howard as Oberon scornfully surveying the muddled lovers while swinging languidly on a trapeze is an indelible image of the RSC in this period.
More usually, he was attired in cloaks and leathers and, as in his preferred director Terry Hands’s version of Henry V, isolated in a spotlight. His clarion voice, the most distinctive (with Ian Richardson’s) of his generation, would reverberate to the rafters, his myopic demeanour – his face was studded, it seemed, with eyes like currants either side of a banana nose – seeking refuge in an audience’s sympathy. Solitude was his mindset, grand spiritual debauchery his inclination.
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It was as fantastical a performance as any of his Shakespearean monarchs, or his star turn as Carlos in Peter Barnes’s The Bewitched (1974), culminating in a King Lear for Peter Hall at the Old Vic in 1997 in which his trumpet-tongued voice invoked goose bumps on his cry of “O reason not the need”. This Lear, a long-haired ancient of days, may not have been as moving as Robert Stephens’s or Ian Holm’s in the same decade, but it conveyed the decline from a majestic, mystical hauteur more powerfully than anyone since Paul Scofield.
Alongside Ian McKellen, Howard was the leading heroic actor of his generation, someone whose voice, even in a misfired 1993 National Theatre Macbeth (known as the “gas-ring” Macbeth on account of some circular ground level lighting of blue flames), thrillingly encompassed, said the critic Irving Wardle, a sardonic croak, a lyrical caress, a one-man brass section and a whinnying cry of horror. His Hamlet was a model of melancholic introspection without a jot of sentiment or self-pity, his Benedick (opposite Janet Suzman as Beatrice) in Much Ado a genuinely funny and self-deluded popinjay, his Achilles in a famous Troilus and Cressida the most sensual and riveting in RSC history.
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He played in rep with Judi Dench and John Neville at the Nottingham Playhouse and started quietly at the RSC with a melodious, virtually sung, Orsino in Twelfth Night before exploding as an outrageous, vile Lussurioso in Trevor Nunn’s black-and-white revival of The Revenger’s Tragedy in 1966. This launched him into the repertoire of Jaques in As You Like It, Edgar in King Lear, followed in the 1970s with his sequence of kings (Hands’s Henry VI trilogy was the first time these plays had been performed uncut in the modern theatre), his glorious Jack Rover in the landmark rediscovery of John O’Keefe’s 18th-century comic melodrama Wild Oats, and his only serious RSC failure, opposite Glenda Jackson, in Peter Brook’s surprisingly flat Antony and Cleopatra in 1978.
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As well as Lear at the Old Vic in 1997, he played Vladimir in Waiting for Godot directed by Peter Hall (who had directed the play’s British premiere); he and Ben Kingsley (as Estragon) were the king and the dustman of comedy, a superlative pairing of former RSC Hamlets.
Howard’s film performances were few, though he was brilliant in Peter Greenaway’s colourful modern Jacobean shocker The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) with Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren, notable in Howard Davies’s 1993 film of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture and was the voice of the ring in the Lord of the Rings saga.
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He was appointed CBE in 1998. He regretted not having more film work, but appreciated the ownership one had in theatre, relishing the room to manoeuvre a good director would leave him with, he said, a degree of leeway and moments of discovery every night. Quiet and reflective away from the stage, he was happiest in his house on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where his great-uncle had written Whisky Galore.
His first marriage, to the actor and scenic designer Stephanie Hinchcliffe Davies, ended in divorce. He met his second wife, the novelist Sally Beauman, when she interviewed him for the Sunday Telegraph; she subsequently wrote a fine history of the RSC. He is survived by Sally, whom he married in 2004, and their son, James.
• Alan Mackenzie Howard, actor, born 5 August 1937; died 14 February 2015
• This article was amended on 20 February 2015. Alan Howard did not appear opposite Corin Redgrave in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, as originally stated.