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Triumph of a student Prince

Evening Standard 18th September 1981, Michael Owen

Michael Pennington, in temporary occupation of Trevor Nunn’s office at the Aldwych theatre, made a genuflection towards the boss’s chair.

“He wasn’t a bad actor, you know. Not as bad as some people have said. I remember him coming on at Cambridge as Duncan and he was actually very good. But he’s probably a better director.”

Appreciation, however charitable, of Mr Nunn’s onstage ability was not the hour’s most pressing business.

Rather it is Mr Pennington’s acting prowess that demands attention this week and in the most thrilling manner. He is now arriving as a major actor of the eighties

That arrival can be timed almost to the minute. It was just before 11pm last night when the ovation that detonated from the Aldwych audience signalled not just another glowing RSC conquest of ‘Hamlet’ but Mr Pennington’s entry to the front rank of his profession, taking his place alongside Alan Howard, Ian McKellan and the rest.

There is a distinct excitement in watching high calibre actors measure themselves against the major roles and the scent of victory was in the air last night.

Mr Pennington’s triumph arrives with a satisfying sense of almost inevitable progress as he worked his way up from early days of spear carrying at Stratford.

The rarity value of last night’s occasion is shown in the fact that he is the first Hamlet to tread the Aldwych boards since David Warner’s, all of 15 years ago.

Pennington’s name, known well enough in the profession and among its most ardent followers, is not yet public property but that will not now last for long.

He is 38, an open, sweetly reasonable man and cast by nature for drama’s noble roles with his curling fair hair, high forehead and clean-cut good looks.

The Cambridge-born son of a lawyer he moved straight from university to Stratford without benefit of drama school or repertory rounds. His private life is shared with Jane Lapotaire.

His career – two extended spells at the RSC with West End and TV in between – has been regularly punctuated by skirmishes with Hamlet, another nice touch.

A childhood exposure to Oliver’s film ‘Hamlet’ fixed his sights on a theatre career, he played a student Prince at Cambridge University and that won him his first Stratford season. He was Fortinbras in Warner’s memorable Hamlet, then Laertes to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet.

It can also honestly be said he arrives with the mantle of Gielgud. In a school production of ‘The Tempest’ costumes were borrowed from the RSC and Pennington took Gielgud’s Prospero cloak. He says now: “I remember it was very tattered by the time I got it.”

We met earlier this week, just when the pressure on him should have been at their highest. He is too shrewd not to know an Aldwych Hamlet success would open most doors. He was impressively relaxed and articulate over a hastily taken lunch.

“Pressure? Quite honestly it’s more of a pleasure to be back doing it again. I have been lucky. I’ve played this Hamlet at Stratford and Newcastle about 130 times before coming to the Aldwych. In the last three months I have actually missed playing it.

“You can’t think about the history of the play, the great actors who have played it. Nerves are a luxury you can’t afford. Right now, a degree of healthy conceit is what is required.

“I’ve been preparing myself. Just quietly thinking about it. I’ve had a holiday walking in the Lake District. That seemed a better idea than lying on a beach. It’s a question of collecting your wits together.

“Playing Hamlet is a terrific experience for an actor. Everything I know about life is there. I’m not saying it’s not difficult. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. This man was a courtier, scholar, soldier, lunatic, actor and wit. It can be tough to get all those.”

John Barton’s production extends the theatrical substance of the play into its own staging style.

Mr Pennington: “Hamlet sees himself as miscast in a role he is not capable of performing well. A lot of him has to do with thoughts on the nature of acting.”

It is no secret that Mr Barton some time ago identified Pennington to be his eventual Hamlet. “I’m fortunate in that,” said the actor. “The timing has to be right in terms of age and experience. The director, the production, all have to fit. I’m lucky I’ve bagged it now.”

Despite his current ennoblement as the new RSC hero, he sees his future elsewhere.

“I suspect there is not much for me to do in Shakespeare for the next four or five years. This company is built so that you can leave and return to it. I would like now to do the one thing I have not done and that is work in films. I think I should be in front of a camera.”

Between his RSC stints Mr Pennington has known the less seductive side of an actor’s life.

“For 10 years my life was incoherent. I’d do odd TV plays and then be out of work for up to six months. I managed to stay alive on repeat fees. There were some very demoralising times.

“But I somehow stayed super-optimistic, believing that in the end you would get the luck, that your time would come.”

And that time came vividly and brilliantly at the Aldwych last night.

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