What better way to end the RSC’s season of events celebrating the Company’s 50th anniversary than with a discussion between two people who for many epitomised the RSC during the 1970s and early 1980s? On Saturday morning Greg Doran hosted just such a discussion.
The partnership between director Terry Hands and actor Alan Howard was so successful that this period is remembered by many as a golden age in the history of the RSC. Their productions were exciting both visually and vocally, while keeping the focus firmly on Shakespeare’s text.
The two men began working together in major productions in 1969 with Bartholomew Fair. Howard’s powerful stage presence and vocal strength had already made him one to watch in Trevor Nunn’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. In 1970 Alan Howard played Oberon/Theseus in Peter Brook’s landmark production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Performed in England and around the world over three years, Howard was the only member of the original cast who remained with it to the end.
Hands had been recruited from the Liverpool Everyman in 1966 by Peter Hall to run the Company’s new outreach programme, Theatregoround. Howard took part in readings like Hands’ own compilation, Pleasure and Repentance in small venues up and down the country. The success of Theatregoround was one of the factors that led to the formation of a studio theatre, The Other Place in the mid-seventies.
But it was when the two men came together in 1975, with a season of history plays to mark the centenary of the Shakespeare Memorial Association that they began their great partnership. The very first Shakespeare play they worked on together was Henry V, with Howard playing the king, to be followed by the two parts of Henry IV, Howard playing the same character as young Prince Hal. So successful was this cycle that in 1977 Henry V was revived, followed by all three parts of Henry VI, Howard playing both kings. This was my first introduction to the partnership, and seeing the man who one night roused his troops before Agincourt, swinging down ropes, wearing black leather one night, transformed into the young Henry VI, seated meekly on his throne while nobles argued around him the next, gave me a real insight into great acting.
Before the Henry VI trilogy was put on, the plays were seen as virtually unperformable. Hands and Howard proved them wrong, and during the discussion Hands defended these plays, still too rarely staged. The next time the RSC performed them in full was Michael Boyd’s production in 2000.
In 1978 Howard played Coriolanus, again directed by Terry Hands, a part that seemed made for him. Howard seemed physically fearless, using his ringing voice to convey the confidence, even arrogance, of the man. The production was so successful it was taken on a major European tour, and he repeated the role, rather watered down, for the BBC TV’s Shakespeare series, sadly the only filmed version of any of the roles he played for the RSC.
In 1980 the pair added two more English kings, Richard II and Richard III to their tally. Both were strikingly designed, Richard II in gold, Richard III in black, by Abd’Elkader Farrah, usually known as Farrah, who had also designed all the Shakespeare plays the two had worked on. Farrah’s designs carried an unmistakeable visual signature, perfectly matching Hands’ rigorous direction and Howard’s muscular acting. Costumes were either hard and metallic, or sensuous, using fabrics like velvet, suede and leather, in a few bold colours.
Hands spoke about theatre politics: the RSC was perpetually short of money. He became joint Artistic Director with Trevor Nunn, and in 1978 Deputy Chief Executive, then in 1986 took over the sole running of the Company, leaving it after 25 years in 1991. One of his regrets in the current RSC is the lack of a permanent London home for the Company, one of Peter Hall’s founding principles for it back in 1961.
In the discussion, Hands spoke about theatre as a collaborative art form, perhaps the most collaborative art form there is. As he put it, in the theatre “There’s no room for I”. I couldn’t help thinking that nevertheless Hands must also have become skilled at dealing with creative people with large egos. Both men spoke generously and warmly of their debt to each other and to others, in particular actors Emrys James and Brewster Mason.
At the end of the session Terry Hands asked Alan Howard to perform a speech from Shakespeare, to hear his voice within the new RST space. He chose the great speech about creativity and imagination from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Howard delivered hundreds of times in that Peter Brook production. It was a fitting end to a very special event.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!