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Sweet Reason

What’s On In London, 11th September 1981, Robert Cushman

I go a long way with Michael Pennington as Hamlet: in fact to 1964 when we were both Cambridge undergraduates (he was in his last year, I in my first). He played the part then and I reviewed him in it, describing it as “the most intellectually exciting performance I had seen at Cambridge.” That was probably a pretentious way of putting it, and anyway it earned me curious glances from the blood-and-guts school of university theatricals who believed that feeling was all and thinking vulgar: a position on which they intellectualised at great length. Anyway what I meant of Pennington was that he said every line as if it meant something, something fairly uncommon among amateurs, especially in Shakespeare, and not always to be taken for granted among professionals either. From that Hamlet to this, Pennington has maintained an exemplary clarity of vocal line.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my notice, which appeared in a short-lived student newspaper, did something to launch him on his career. It came, together with a review by George Steiner (who, being more famous than I at the time, was published in The Guardian) to the attention of Maurice Daniels, administrator at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was moved to come to Pennington’s next performance, which was Troilus in ‘Troilus and Cressida.’ On the strength of that performance Pennington was offered walk-on roles in what remained of that year’s Stratford season. It happened to be the famous histories season, and he found himself literally carrying spears, and other fearsome weapons, over and around John Bury’s daunting sets for ‘The Wars of the Roses’.  The following year he was asked back to play speaking roles, the first being Dumaine, “one of those awful supporting lords” in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, a production that represented John Barton’s first solo flight; it was Barton who, 15 years later, was to direct his Stratford Hamlet. In that ‘Love’s Labour’s’ Pennington also understudied the leading role Berowne, and for several performances got to play it: it’s a role he got to repeat, at more leisure, in Barton’s second and justly acclaimed production of the comedy a couple of years ago.

Also in that 1965 season Pennington had his first professional brush with Hamlet: this was in Peter Hall’s famous politicised production with David Warner as an alienated student prince. Pennington played a fair, cold Nordic Fortinbras: Denmark looked to be in at the end for a Fascist take-over. Fortinbras, of course, doesn’t come on till near the close. During the first part of the evening he was occupied by playing one third of the ghost. The Ghost in this production was a twelve-foot mobile, with Pennington at its base, another actor above him, and right at the top Patrick Magee speaking the lines and getting the billing. Afterwards Magee departed, leaving behind a tape of his voice for Warner as Hamlet to synchronise with as best he could, so really nobody played the Ghost. There was just these two nervous young actors, pent up, unable to see where they were going, trying to navigate round a raked stage. As Pennington says, “when you’re starting out you’re anxious to please” and he was scared of ruining the scene by bumping into something or someone, or toppling over. In the end he had to receive ‘walkie-talkie’ guidance from stage management.

A few years later, he became involved in another notable ‘Hamlet’: that of Nicol Williamson at the Roundhouse, in which he played Laertes, a part he thinks he understands now but didn’t then. But what’s interesting is that, having supported the two great anti-romantic Hamlets of recent times, he should now be giving a performance much closer to the sweet (and aristocratic) prince of theatre tradition. He remembers playing the role at Cambridge as being “very enjoyable” (contrary to his expectations), and feeling that Hamlet “ wasn’t a neurotic – there was nothing odd or unbalanced about the man. What is strange is to discover what a passive central character he is; he’s so defined by events. And that” he says, as if brought up short by the realisation “is what I still think.”

When you come to study the role there are all sorts of surprises, like the fact that among all his grievances Hamlet “doesn’t seem to resent being deprived of the throne.” (I pointed out that there is a line about Claudius being the usurper ‘ popping in between the election and (Hamlet’s) hopes’ but had to agree that it’s only an isolated passing reference). So where does the actor go for a line on Hamlet? Ophelia gushes over him, but then she’s in love with him, and anyway her eulogy refers to the prince as he was, before tragedy. Pennington says that Hamlet “seems courteous, considerate, naturally affectionate” but he talks most enthusiastically not about the character but about telling the story. “Sometimes you can make people think that this Hamlet can actually kill the King at his prayers”  - can give them, in fact, the kind of thrill Pennington himself got as a schoolboy in the ’50s when he saw most of Shakespeare’s plays at the Old Vic and determined that he would be an actor himself.

He has a good academic background: he was, I think, the only actor in a luminous undergraduate generation to get a good degree; and he works well with Barton, that scholarly renegade, equally capable of shocking the academic world with his showmanship, and the theatrical world with his insistence on treating verse as a formal medium and on working out all the antitheses. It was Barton who gave him his professional chance at Hamlet (flattering because a “director doesn’t just decide he’d like to do the play – he must want to do it with a particular actor”) and Barton who first pulled him from the ranks for ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ “He was very rigorous and demanding then – now he’s more relaxed. You can see the development in him from the romantic quality he added to his second production of that play.”

Between his two periods as an RSC actor Pennington spent “nine inchoate years” that included some West End plays and a lot of television. He had speedily reached a modest plateau of success – he got good parts – but didn’t seem to be rising above it. At one awful moment he seemed to be sinking. He got a message in 1974 to see Peter Gill who was directing ‘Twelfth Night’ at Stratford, and wanted to see him about the part of Valentine, a very minor walking gentleman. Gill explained, when seen, that there had been a mistake; really he wanted to discuss the more important role of Orsino. This in fact didn’t work out, but that night Gill casually mentioned the meeting to Keith Hack who was directing ‘Measure for Measure.’ So it was that Pennington came to play Angelo in maybe the most vilified production ever seen at Stratford (one to which he still avows a certain loyalty). The ’74 season was not a great success but several of the newer actors in it – Pennington, Francesca Annis, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid – were creamed off and asked back for 1976. In the interim Pennington was sent on active service abroad, with the standby RSC anthology shows ‘The Hollow Crown’ and ‘Pleasure and Repentance’; he also took a train-journey across Russia which he commemorated in a book called ‘Rossya’ which he wrote and published. Both the journey and the book are among the occasional eruptions in the life of a placid-seeming man; like the electric surprises that can occur in what generally seems meticulous, well-considered acting.

1976 was a watershed year at Stratford and, says Pennington, carefully planned as such with a company “hand-picked” by Barton and Trevor Nunn. It was the year of Ian McKellan’s ‘Macbeth’, of Donald Sinden and Judi Dench in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. For Pennington it was Mercutio (a favourite role), Hector and – a role he especially asked to play – the sixty-year old right-wing major in David Edgar’s ‘Destiny’. “After putting my make-up on I gazed in the mirror and found I looked like my father.” He says that “the company was different from anything I’d known before. It was much smaller; everything was simpler.” After the obligatory year in London, showing off their wares at the Aldwych and adding new ones “we were hacked off into different regiments. Ian McKellan, Bob Peck, Roger Rees all went off on tour with the company that eventually created ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, I went to Stratford – to the Duke in ‘Measure for Measure’ and to Berowne, playing opposite Jane Lapotaire” (with whom he now lives in a manner of speaking; most of this last year she’s been in New York playing Piaf). He is now into his third Stratford-London cycle, his eighth consecutive year with the RSC, and with the new Barbican theatre ahead there are inducements to stay on yet longer. But there is also the urge to try something else, to act before cameras again. He only took on Hamlet after two months of indecision; he had also been offered the chance of film-stardom in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ –  “and I’d spent 15 years getting there.” But if there are any regrets over his choice, he doesn’t betray them. As he says, the modern actor doesn’t get the opportunity that Gielgud had to play Hamlet four or five times. Many fine actors either haven’t had the chance at all, or have had to take it with the wrong company or the wrong director. At Stratford last year he wasn’t ‘a Hamlet of our time’, just as the production was not a large-scale political allegory. We saw a human story which explored the plays fascination with the idea of acting, and with both a human being and an actor at its centre. “The more you grip the audience with the narrative the better; they’ve got to think ‘there, but for the grace of God’.”

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