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Man with a lean and hungry look

Daily Telegraph 16th January 1984, John Barber

A man’s good looks, you might think, are a priceless asset for a career on the stage. Not so. No one would accuse recent leading men – Simon Callow, Antony Sher, Jonathan Pryce – of being dreamboats or matinee idols. Last year an unusually personable actor had to go on a diet to give his handsome visage a starved and haggard look.

This was Michael Pennington, who in his new play has again to transform a winning appearance into a semblance of senile decrepitude. Once, actors used make-up to prettify themselves; this actor denied himself food when a director feared his goodly height and appearance might make him seem too sympathetic to an audience.

It is true that, in the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mr Pennington’s natural attractiveness fitted him for dashing blades like Mercutio. True, too, that he impressed me deeply with his 1980 Hamlet at Stratford – a royal Dane, a poetic aristocrat, after recent sweet princes have been raving neurotics. The actor dominated the stage with a grace that defied fashion: a noble presence, unruly blond hair, a cultured voice. Yet, in a fine performance, Mr Pennington lacked neither passion nor explosive violence. In a tantrum over Ophelia’s supposed duplicity, he struck her and hurled her body from him an in ecstasy of erotic desire and hate. In his mother’s bedchamber, his anger might have persuaded her that her dead husband had risen to revile her.

The son of a barrister, educated at Marlborough and Trinity, Cambridge, the actor realised his vocation when only 11, thanks to a performance of “Macbeth” with Paul Rogers at the Old Vic. A slap-happy student, he used Cambridge simply as his training ground, acting in 30 plays in three years, from there stepped overnight into the RSC as a spear- carrier. He rose to leading roles and meantime mapped out a useful side career in TV and films.

Thanks to the “Star Wars” sequel and film work, he was absent from the theatre for two years after “Hamlet,” until his striking Raskolnikov last year at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in the superb dramatisation of Doskoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” by the Russian director Yuri Lyubimov – the role for which he starved himself. Some of the effect of his murderer-student must have been owing to his unusual knowledge of Russia. He travelled to Moscow at his own expense to see the original version of the play which Lyubimov was to recreate in London, and was amazed to find the theatre besieged like a football stadium for the special performance he attended.

Arriving in London, the Russian director proved a hard-taskmaster and some of the cast jibbed at his fiercely autocratic style. “You had to trust him or die. But I’m tired of hearing how this undoubted genius took hold of the fastidious English and turned them into passionate beings. Good actors always commit themselves extravagantly, in London or in Moscow. And English actors have a talent for nuance and line which deepened the production a lot. So the good fortune was mutual.”

One thing about the great Russian method struck Mr Pennington as unusually salutary: the dashingly effective technology of the production was incredibly effective and inexpensive. After the RSC’s high-budget effects, where great machines come rolling on the stage (and get their hydraulics jammed), he found this something more than impressive. “I’m absolutely antipathetic to high expense in the theatre. I think it’s politically inappropriate. What’s more, the challenge to the actor as a performer is taken away, and our job reduced, when you are supported by huge batteries of design and technology and fuss. If ever there was a time when we ought to be packing our bags and going out on tour very cheaply, it is now.”

As it happens – though from him it is no surprise – Mr Pennington’s new play at the Cottesloe later this month is also Russian, a musical adaptation by Mark Rozovsky (in a version by Peter Tegal) of Tolstoy’s tale “The Story of a Horse.” There are one or two human characters in this Michael Bogdanov production, but most of them are horses. Mr Pennington plays a broken-down old piebald gelding, the butt of his fellow equines and the victims of his masters’ cruel exploitation. In a flashback, however, the hero is seen in the brief day of his glory, when he drew a rich hussar’s elegant sleigh and ran a brilliant race.

You might liken the play to “Black Beauty” rewritten by Tolstoy, that is by a moralistic prophet who regards property as sinful and is obsessed with old age and the decrepitude it brings to man and beast alike. It may well give Mr Pennington the opportunity to dazzle us again with the intensity of his playing and his effortless ability to command the stage

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