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09 April 2015

Alan Howard - What An Actor Should Be

"Once more into the breech, my  friends ..."

I was really saddened to find out about the death of Alan Howard. True, he didn't look well in the last few appearances of his that I've seen, and he was 77 years old. But that doesn't seem very old to me anymore.

I saw him in the best live performance of a Shakespeare play (or live performance of anything, come to think of it) I have ever seen, the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry V that came to New York and ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a few weeks. (Could it have been 1976? Yes, it was; a Bicentennial present for us all!)

It has to be admitted that sometimes the RSC sends its second-stringers over here, perhaps rightly thinking that we won't know the difference. But this production was different -- it was the best. Every single actor was simply perfect, and they were at the top of their game. The emphasis was on characters and ideas, not pageantry; the costumes were not particularly showy and the settings were simple indications of place, not elaborate structures.

But the acting! Every character, every line, every word, every thought, was fully imagined and rigorously clear. You can get an idea of the process these talented and hard-working people take part in in the television series Playing Shakespeare, which is currently available both on dvd and streaming through Acorn. You see actors who are physically and mentally wholly committed to their wondrous art -- 

What demonstrates what human beings are better than drama? And I mean that in the broadest sense. How did helpless little animals like us, so sadly lacking in tooth, claw, and fur, develop the exquisitely delicate communication we take so much for granted? The ability to understand what another is thinking and feeling?

And, like our other skills, we love to exercise this one, to  the extent of making up stories, listening to stories, acting out stories, writing down stories -- stories can be better than real life. They can take the place of real life.

But for some, stories are real life -- those whose insight and expressive abilities are far beyond the average human. Artists. We instinctively value these people; how much   richer are we all for the hard work of musicians, actors, artists of all kinds!

Alan Howard came from a creative background; Leslie Howard was his uncle, Ronald Howard his cousin, Sir Compton McKenzie his great uncle. But all the background in the world can't make you an artist -- only what's inside can do that. And this man spent a lifetime on serious work -- stage,  screen, and  television, production after production. By the age of 25 he was getting major roles in the West End and in classical plays. He joined the RSC during perhaps its most productive decade, and took part in one blockbusting production after another -- Twelfth Night, The Revenger's Tragedy, Doctor Faustus, Much Ado About Nothing, Gorky's Enemies, Wild Oats, The Man Of Mode -- what a life for an actor!

When he came to the US with Henry V, he was a star , true; but the play was a dream of ensemble work. That is, to the viewer, I hasten to add; I have no idea if there was unrest behind the scenes or not -- I only know what it was like from the front. It was glorious.

He left the RSC eventually, but the rest of his career presents a similar picture -- production after production,  year after year, from enduring classics to avant-garde experiment, some funny, some tragic, some thrilling. His work was showing human beings how to understand each other. 
In Waiting for Godot, with Ben Kingsley

In later years he could be seen in popular British tv exports like Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders.  And among his final projects was the "voice" of the ring in The Lord of the Rings series!

I lived in England for a few years, and I saw Howard on the underground once. His hair was red-blond, and he looked very fit and limber, and had a big shoulder bag stuffed with what were probably research materials for a role -- an artist at work. No one bothered him, because the Brits have so many great actors lying around that you can't skip a stone without hitting one. But I was thrilled. 
Compared with other artists, goodness knows, he had a long life, and he certainly had a richly accomplished one. But I wish it had been longer.

In the television series Playing Shakespeare

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