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A new Hamlet – with the looks of Prince Charming

The Standard, 9th September 1981, Judith Simons

Actor Michael Pennington is a grown-up version of the boy in the famous Pears soap advertisement, ‘Bubbles.’

These same physical qualities – tight fair curls, noble brow, dreamy eyes – give him an ideal appearance for his present stage role of Hamlet.

On September 15th he opens in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London production of the bard’s most famous play, the company’s first since David Warner did it in 1966.

Pennington, 37, who has already been seen as Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon said: “In the 18 months I have lived with the part you have become accustomed to comments about my ‘suitable’ looks. At least there was no call for me to dye my hair blond, like Olivier and Peter O’Toole.

“Actually it was Olivier’s film version which swayed me to become an actor. My parents marshalled me off to see it when I was eight years old, as part of my general education. I went reluctantly, because I was missing football. But I came out of the cinema excited and inspired.

“The play keeps going out of fashion and coming in again. Lately there has been an epidemic of Hamlets – Stephen Berkoff, Jonathan Pryce, Derek Jacobi, Frances de la Tour …”

Pennington refutes the idea that the Prince of Denmark was neurotic. He was politely disdainful when I suggested it.

“I understand his behaviour very well,” he countered. “He was under such pressure. His mother had married his uncle who had murdered his father. That’s a very difficult set of circumstances, bound to make someone very savage and wary of betrayal.”

Pennington’s way of discussing Shakespeare’s characters as casually as if they were his next-door neighbours is understandable too. He has spent most of his life among them.

Son of a former Chancery lawyer, he played his first Shakespeare role, Prospero – at Marlborough College – wearing a hired cloak he was told had been worn by Gielgud.

At the age of 20, when studying English at Cambridge University, he played Hamlet for the first time. From here he went off to start at the bottom rung of the professional Shakespearean stage, as a spear-carrier at Stratford.

His private life too has been shaped by regular spells of work with the RSC.

He told me: “I met my former wife, actress Katherine Barker, when I did a stretch at Stratford 15 years ago. Our marriage lasted four years.

“My romance with Jane Lapotaire, with whom I am living now, also started at Stratford, when we were together in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.

Pennington’s lifestyle has already affected the ambitions of his 15-year-old son Mark.

“He has spent so much time in theatres, and likes them, there is a danger he will become an actor too. But at this stage I don’t know whether it is the work itself, or the environment, which attracts him.”

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