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Tackling the actor’s Everest

Stage and Television Today, 3rd July 1980, Ann Fitzgerald

Four days before the first preview performance at Stratford of the RSC’s new production of ‘Hamlet’, Michael Pennington projected the controlled tension and subdued excitement of an athlete waiting for the starter’s gun after months of concentrated preparation.

He knew definitely that he would be playing Hamlet last autumn but since he joined the RSC in 1974 there has always been a “strong implication that it might happen.”

He hasn’t let the idea obsess him – there have been plenty of other parts to tackle, notably Mercutio, Edgar, a performance with which he was personally disappointed, Hector in John Barton’s production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’, the Duke in ‘Measure for Measure,’ a role in which he made an outstanding contribution to Barry Kyle’s production, and Berowne in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Outside Shakespeare he made a Mirabel of real grit, working for John Barton again, in ‘The Way of the World’, and he has particularly enjoyed his work at The Other Place, in David Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ and Rudkin’s ‘Hippolytus’.

They have all been a challenge but he admits there is a particular pressure to playing Hamlet because it has been singled out as the serious actor’s Everest and “you come to it knowing you are that much under the critical spotlight”.

He admits to “dismay” when news broke of the Royal Court’s production earlier this year.

“I couldn’t possibly begrudge it to Jonathan Pryce but it had added a further gladiatorial aspect to the already heavy pressures”, because, “to see another interpretation at the stage when my own ideas are beginning to crystallise would be very dangerous”.

His approach to playing the part has been very subjective. “Hamlet if such a riddle, such an enigma, that I can’t get anywhere by saying he is primarily this kind of chap or that. I can only say what this set of awful bombshells that happen to him at the beginning of the play do to me as a person, and take it from there”.

When he is not working, and that isn’t often at the moment (apart from Hamlet he is also playing Donal Davoran in ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ at The Other Place), Michael Pennington retreats to the seclusion of a rented flat above the stables of an old manor house eight miles out of Stratford.

The estate, 100 acres of parkland, woods and lake, belongs to an American whose desire to own a bit of Shakespeare’s England provides Michael Pennington and also Jane Lapotaire with a much-needed haven in the midst of two very hectic careers.

“But it’s not always been like this,” says Michael. “ I was out of work plenty of times before I joined the RSC. It is really since then that the good parts have kept coming.” And that’s why he has remained with the company for six years. Although he doesn’t intend to become “part of the bricks and mortar”, he does enjoy the philosophy of teamwork on which the RSC is founded, rather than mounting star vehicles.

What next after Hamlet is a question he can’t duck for too long. The part is bound to be a watershed and probably time to get out and do something different afterwards. Films beckon strongly for they’re still untried territory though Pennington has done a lot of TV work.

But first his most fervent hope is that Hamlet will prove to have a long mileage in it, one of those satisfying productions which will grow and deepen over many months of playing. “I should like it to reach a really wide audience not just in the big theatres of Stratford and the Aldwych, I’d like to think it has enough flexibility to go on a small venue tour as well”.

Pennington doesn’t know, though, what the cost of playing the part in physical and emotional terms will be. “I might be totally shattered by Christmas or in a state of high exhilaration”, he says and there is a flicker of anticipatory fear and excitement at the prospect of finding out.

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