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Bring on the Russian horses

Standard 6th January 1984

Michael Pennington, a noted RSC Hamlet and hero of last year’s celebrated Crime and Punishment success, is to be found these days in the National Theatre stable – in more ways than one.

The tall, tousled-hair actor was the first man into the South Bank building one early morning this week, not for mucking out duties but for the rehearsals of a remarkable new production shortly to be set on the Cottesloe stage.

Mr Pennington, like most of his fellow actors in the show, plays a horse.

The play is Strider – The Story of a Horse taken from Tolstoy’s short story with its vision of the 19th century Russian class system expressed in equine terms.

Pennington plays Strider, a former famous race horse now in decrepit dotage who no longer commands the respect of his society, and rehearsals are this week delicately poised at the point where director Michael Bogdanov and his 15-strong cast have to decide how the horses will be portrayed on stage.

Pennington: “We have to find a way of making it a horse’s world without making it seem ridiculous. It is not going to be like Equus and it is certainly not going to be like pantomime. It has to be done with touch, delicacy and feeling.”

It is a neat coincidence which has brought the actor in Russian vein from Doskoevsky’s classic to Tolstoy’s tale though the country has long held a fascination for him.

He was in Moscow last year to view Russian director Yuri Lyubimov’s Crime and Punishment at the Taganka Theatre before Lyubimov arrived to create his English language version at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

“That production was exhausting but exhilarating, especially when we got the response we did from the public. I lost three stone to play that role because I knew how I wanted Raskolnikov to look, and Lyubimov also insisted he should have a savage profile.”

He is preparing a Chekhov-based one-man show at an NT platform but the further future remains unknown to him.

“You can’t plan a career these days. It used to be the case that once you get to Hamlet you could have an expectation of playing other such roles but now fashion plays too big a part of casting. Even at the RSC you can feel you are out of fashion.

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