Our fantastic English Lit teacher, ex-actress Jenny James-Moore, had taken a group of us to an RSC production of Coriolanus at the Aldwych, their London home at that time. I’d never seen nor heard of the actor playing Caius Marcius Coriolanus (or Cor-aye-o-lanus as they decided to call him) but the moment he was flung up on spears, blood-spattered and leather-clad is as indelibly etched in my memory today as it was then.
There are a variety of ways to say the line “I banish you”, but only the towering, idiosyncratic brilliance of Alan Howard could summon up this version: “Aiiiieeeee banisssshhh yeeeouuuuuuuu,” the words strung out, snarled with utmost sneering contempt. I was smitten, remained smitten, and when I heard with great grief yesterday about the death of this giant who I had worshipped from that moment on, was instantly transported back to my first sighting of the tall, pale-faced imperious figure dressed in tight red leather (a common Howard costume design, not that I nor my friend Pip were complaining) stalking around the stage withering the senators with one myopic, penetrating glance.
Alan Howard was 77 when he died, no age at all really. He has taken with him a major part of my teenage crush years. Alan Howard made me fall in love with Shakespeare as well as him, although his extraordinary way of verse-speaking wasn’t to everyone’s taste. He sang the words, tasted the syllables, found ways to deliver a line which you would never consider in a million years. Sometimes the music of his voice took over the sense – he would rattle off lines so fast you could barely keep up but then he’d stop and cut you to the bone with one single line or word. “Alone I did it. Boy.” is another Cor-aye-o-lanus classic.
He worked extensively with Terry Hands and the designer Farrah – their productions were glittering, mesmerising, often with a coldness at their heart that perfectly matched his performance. He was amazing at the nasties – Corayeolanus, Richard III, Richard II…
My personal favourite was RII – Big Al in gold lame crying “Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon… In the base court? The base court, where kings grow base, To come at traitors’ calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court!
down, king! For night-owls shriek where mounting larks
No-one I’ve ever heard since has managed to get so many interpretations of the word ‘base’ into that speech. Nor ‘down’ for that matter. The first time I worked at my beloved Theatr Clwyd and met Terry Hands, I told him what an impression those productions had made on me, how they’d given me a love of Shakespeare that has never left, the sheer joy of those words and Alan Howard giving them to us (clad in gold lame/red leather/black leather).
But he could also do funny – John O’Keefe’s play Wild Oats was another classic Howard moment – as Jack Rover, declaring “I am the Bold Thunder!” cheers rang out from the auditorium.
The rasp of his voice had a Richard Burton quality to it, possibly due to the chain-smoking. Big Al (as Pip and I called him) would rarely be seen without a cigarette holder as he wandered around in jeans and a denim jacket. How did I know this? Pip was working in the RSC bookshop at the time and managed to get me a part time job. Those hours were magical, despite the presence of the raving bonkers woman, known as Grim, who also worked there. Grim was obsessed with Ian McKellen and I do mean obsessed. In a stalker-type way. One day in a fit of post-McKellen pique (he’d done something to upset her, probably ran away as she loitered outside his house) she ripped up a picture of Big Al that we kept on the till.
But still, there I was, with a like-minded friend, stacking books, endlessly re-arranging photos of Big Al and best of all, watching to see when he’d walk past the shop on the way to the theatre. Or on very rare occasions, come inside.
Notoriously shy, with all the small talk of Helen Keller, we could so rarely get a word out of him that we used to make and wear badges with his sayings on them. “They’re all watching News at 10” came about when we were talking about audience numbers and how they’d dropped off a bit. When we saw him lope past the door, I was always allowed to get our lunchtime sandwiches from the Aldwych Green Room, so would instantly shoot out, follow him round the corner and stand behind him in the queue. He always smiled and said hello. I don’t consider it stalking, not for one moment. He could barely see me anyway – being incredibly short-sighted he always wore lenses on stage making his gaze even more penetrating.
Pip and I were also at that time creating our ideal cast list for The Lord of the Rings. Big Al was of course Aragorn – and how lovely that he ended up playing the Voice of the Ring in the films. We feel that we can take a little credit for that.
The last thing I saw him in was in the frankly awful Oedipus at the National. He was, however, extraordinary and even when still (especially when still), nobody else existed on that stage. RIP Big Al. You were and are unforgettable. Thank you.