Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

A moment for the scholarly Prince

The Times, 2nd July 1980, John Higgins

The place where Michael Pennington first learnt that he might one day play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford was, appropriately enough, Elsinore. He spent part of his early years with the RSC touring in ‘The Hollow Crown’. After one of those readings, his Danish hostess came up to him and said that she had been talking to a man called John Barton, who had decided that Mr Pennington would be his next Hamlet. And tonight it happens, the first’ Hamlet’ for ten years in the RSC’s big house, with Michael Pennington in the title role, directed by John Barton.

“All that dates back to about 1974. After my hostess had gone off to talk to someone else I taxed John about what he had said and he answered that he had been correctly reported. Since then we’ve talked about it on and off and the project was finally set up with Terry Hands last autumn. But I didn’t start serious discussion of the play with John until this February – before that he had a little number called ‘The Greeks’ to deal with. But I am grateful to the RSC for honouring a pledge made so long ago. We work in a treacherous profession where many promises are made and all too few are kept.

“On the other hand I don’t think it would be too arrogant to say that this was the one role which would keep me with the company. I’d been thinking of taking a break after six years. A major film offer had just come up, which coincided precisely with the ‘Hamlet’ dates. I turned it down reluctantly because I thought that there would be other films – at least I hope there will be – but there might never occur another ‘Hamlet’.”

The film in question was ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, currently on location in Dorset with Meryl Streep in the lead. It might be some consolation that Michael Pennington is not the only British actor to have said no to the chief male role.

Pennington is very much a Cambridge man. He was born there and went to university there, with Marlborough intervening. He even had a spell with the Cambridge Theatre Company after coming down. This is quite a long way from the image of the most famous, or some would say infamous, RSC Hamlet of the past twenty years, David Warner’s lanky, woolly-scarved Prince. So will tonight’s audience be watching a Cambridge Hamlet?

“I hadn’t thought of it in that light, but I suppose the answer to the question is ‘yes’. John and I decided quite early on that the time was right for a scholar Prince rather than a redbrick, yahoo Prince, who has been so much in fashion over the last couple of decades. I see Hamlet as a very conservative rebel, who is constantly harking back to the past. And the Cambridge element? Well, you can’t shake off your background. Whatever qualities you have are likely to reflect this in part and presumably the director will want to build on them.

“I think we’re all very aware that this production will come in for quite a lot of attention simply because it is the RSC’s first ‘Hamlet’ of the Eighties. But tags are used too loosely: it’s common to refer to David’s interpretation as the ‘Hamlet of the Sixties’, but that does rather overlook the fact that there were quite a lot of other decades between the time the play was written and the middle of this century. It is dangerous to use the play to appeal to a certain generation, just as it is dangerous to employ it to make a specific political point. I’ve been trying hard to ignore the ‘Hamlet-of-the-Eighties’ spotlight and the easiest way of achieving that is to disappear into the play.”

Although Michael Pennington claims that he is not trying to create a Hamlet for the current generation he does concede that the part has come at the right time in his career. He is 37 this year.

“Readiness is all. I’ve played a number of roles at Stratford which have helped pave the way. Berowne in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ – his mixture of flair and imagination coupled with emotional inexperience is quiet close to Hamlet. Then there’s the Duke in ‘Measure’, whose reflectiveness points in the same direction. Those are the key parts rather than the more obvious ones like Edgar in ‘Lear’, which is always considered a pre-Hamlet role. But above all you learn how to work in this theatre: I think I’ve got over the animal fear of first nights, although I’m not saying it won’t return on the day.

“You don’t act ‘Hamlet’ because you have an identity crisis, or have lost your faith in your mother, or because you’ve had a break up with a woman. In a phrase, you don’t use the play but instead let the play use you.

“The greatest satisfaction comes from hearing the audience catch its breath when the plot takes a turn. And the greatest difficulty probably is to find the pulse of those narrative beats: the text is so full of riches that it is all too easy to miss them the role never allows you a chance to steady yourself. Once you’re off, you’re away; it’s like being on a run-away horse.”

Michael Pennington will not allow that other Hamlets have influenced his own interpretation, quoting the fact that he has been in more ‘Hamlets’ than he has watched from the stalls. These include playing Fortinbras to David Warner, Laertes to Nicol Williamson and on his own admission doing rather less well than the RSC’s John Bowe in the same part, and being the bottom half of the Ghost. (See Sweet Reason article)

He reckons that he will be living with ‘Hamlet’ for another couple of years. John Barton’s staging is simply and easily moveable and there is the hope that apart from making the ritual transfer to the Aldwych it will be packed in a couple of skips and played in much smaller theatres. The RSC actors have grown used to alternating in large and tiny spaces in both Stratford and London – the peepshow and the gigantic close-up as they are known – but so far productions have not been shuttled between the Aldwych and the Warehouse or between the Shakespeare Theatre and The Other Place. Pennington reckons that this ‘Hamlet’ could and should be adaptable.

A few years ago when he was in ‘Romeo’ he wrote a book, which he published privately, called ‘Rossya’, an account of a rail journey across Siberia to Moscow which came at the end of a ‘Hollow Crown’ tour of Japan. (How much emerged from ‘The Hollow Crown’!) Michael Pennington gestures across the road past The Arden Hotel.

“I had a flat over there. I was playing Mercutio, which meant I was always home early. So I started scribbling in the evenings – it’s a very good part if you want to write. I asked Roger Rees (the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby in London) to do the illustrations, because he was the only trained artist I knew, even though he wasn’t on the journey. He was Benvolio and so he had plenty of spare time. Ah, it was a talented company, the class of ’76.” Michael Pennington again sounds very much like a Cambridge man.

Will there be another book? “Not while I’m playing Hamlet.”

Return to Hamlet