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If this is Venice, I can’t be a horse or Chekhov

The Sunday Times 15th July 1984, Leslie Geddes-Brown

Michael Pennington seems tired. His face is colourless, he passes a hand repeatedly across his forehead and his speech is slow.

It’s hardly surprising. Since his one-man show about Chekhov opened on the 5th July, he has been juggling an extraordinary series of three major roles with dazzling speed between the two auditoria of the National Theatre. As well as Chekhov, which he compiled himself from the author’s works, he is appearing in Rozovsky’s “Strider the Story of a Horse”, a role which combines the physical demands of a ballet dancer, and in Thomas Otway’s “Venice Preserv’d.”

“Strider” ends on Wednesday but even so his schedule from the following Monday goes like this: five “Venice Preserv’d” in four days; then seven Chekhovs, three more Venices, four Chekhovs and another three Venices – an 18-day run with breaks only on Sunday.

However tired he may look, Michael Pennington loves this marathon – and that’s exactly how he sees it: “It’s interesting, what happens on the other side of tiredness. You can get a second, third, even fourth wind when, theoretically, you are too tired. Athletes, marathon runners, especially, go through that barrier.”

The obvious problem, I said, must be that an actor with so many roles in his head will find himself acting one in another play. “That’s just a lay man’s idea. The ‘tapes’ are quite separate. Anyway, I can’t imagine being so out of touch with a character that I could forget. Probably there’s no limit at all to the number of parts you can hold in your head.” I get the impression that he’d like to find out, preferably by trying it himself.

Pennington, now 40, has taken on three or four parts before, “but this is probably the most extreme.” There’s the two-hour stint of Chekhov, “the only writer I have ever wanted to meet”, ‘Strider’ is “the most physically exhausting but it’s also releasing” and ‘Venice’ is “nervously exhausting, emotionally intense.” But the real work is during rehearsals – early morning sessions of real endeavour followed by the performances, easier because it’s in those cassettes in his head.

So now freelance work is beginning to creep back in. he was narrating for a BBC film the day we met and today he’s off to Bristol. But the theatre always comes first. “I have been away for two years – mostly doing TV and film work – and that’s more than enough. The theatre keeps you alive in the end.”

What is keeping him alive at the moment is the glittering promises of a two-week break next month. “It’s like an oasis. I’ll go south if I can by then put one leg in front of another.” But he won’t stop even then. “If you ever do, you just fall to pieces.”

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