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A State of Mind and Body

Theatre Magazine, 1979, Gordon Gow

The talent flexing of alternating rôles in a repertory season could hardly be illustrated better than by the four contrasted assignments of Michael Pennington in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current London schedule. Pennington has developed into that highly satisfactory kind of leading man whose versatility ensures that his work is so diversified as to look constantly fresh. Three of his characterisations this season are carry-overs from last year in Stratford-upon-Avon: Berowne in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (already in the Aldwych rep.), the Duke in “Measure for Measure” (joining the line-up later on), and the title rôle in the ‘modern Hippolytus,’ by David Rudkin after Euripides (which originated at The Other Place in Stratford and goes into The Warehouse, the RSC’s London studio space, in June). Additionally, a new production starting at the Aldwych on May 23rd gives him the rôle of  Shervinsky in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The White Guard”: a curiosity not seen in London since 1938, when its run at the Phoenix was cut very short on account of the war. Pennington finds it a thoroughly absorbing exercise.

“The play deals with the last spasms of resistance from the White cause immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War. The characters are soldiers, but Shervinsky is not a fighting man: he’s an aide-de-camp. He’s also about to become an opera singer. And they all make their adjustments to life under the Revolution, as the Bolsheviks finally arrive in Kiev, which is where the play takes place.

“The one thing that is clear is that the interpretative artist, in some ironic way (and as distinct, say, from a writer), is able to survive any political change: Shervinsky embarks on his singing career with every probability of success. He’s a man who wants to be a singer but has to be a soldier in the meantime.”

Taking a not very unsympathetic view of the counter-revolutionary ‘White’, it was evidently rather a daring piece for the Moscow Art Theatre to essay, when they performed it for the first time in 1926. “It was written first as a novel. The Moscow Art Theatre invited Bulgakov to adapt it, but it was felt that the title ‘The White Guard’ was dangerous, so they called it ‘The Days of the Turbins’ that’s the name of the family in the story. They had immense difficulties getting it on. The opening was postponed many times, because for obvious reasons there was enormous trouble with the censor. So now the play remains very nicely balanced politically. There was some abuse when it went into the repertoire. But Stalin loved it: his view was that if the Whites were that formidable, how much more formidable must the Revolution have been!

“It has a Chekhovian surface to it. It appears to be in the direct line of the Stanislavsky/Chekhov naturalistic tradition. And that may have been due to Stanislavsky’s influence on the adaptation, because the novel is much more allegorical. It combines the richness of relationships of a Chekhov play with the political sensibility of a Gorky play, but I hope that it’s not like either of these things: I hope it’s something of it’s own.”

The rôle of Shervinsky calls for Pennington to be sometimes in uniform, sometimes in disguise, and in white tie and tails for his singing debut. Carrying a costume with apparent ease is one of the actor’s gifts, it would seem; but ask him whether the flair comes naturally, or if it has been painstakingly acquired, and his eyebrows shoot up in manifest surprise. “I’ve never thought about it. It’s a theatrical tradition, of course, that there is a way of moving in certain clothes, just as there’s a way of tackling a line of blank verse. The root of all that is the way certain styles of costume impose certain manners on the body. If you put on a Restoration costume, it demands that you move and walk in a certain way. You couldn’t possibly throw your shoulders forward and slouch if you were wearing the broad shoulders and deep cuffs of a Restoration hero. You have to hold yourself in a specific way in order to support the clothes at all.

“For years I believe, I moved quite badly. I think I always stooped. But there’s something about facing an arduous season at Stratford – playing rôles like Hector in ‘Troilus and Cressida’, which makes very obvious physical demands, purely from the point of view of being credible as a warrior, and Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which of course involves not only poetry but swordplay – there’s something in that prospect that makes one consider whether one is sufficiently fit to deal with it, whether one is taking as much care of one’s physical equipment as one does of one’s voice. And so when I saw that season coming up in 1976, I did what actors sometimes do – I went and took a course straightening out and body building, lifting weights, all that stuff.”

The season also included his notable Edgar in “King Lear”, a notoriously taxing assignment. So physical as well as mental and vocal stamina would certainly have been essential. “Those rôles forced the decision on me. Otherwise I probably would never have considered taking such a course, but it proved very timely. Actors, you know, tend to take a very self-deprecatory view of themselves when they compare themselves with dancers. By comparison we feel slovenly: we don’t train and we don’t come to rehearsal in the right state of mind or body. When we rehearsed at Floral Street in London we used to hear them working-out at The Dance Centre next door, and partly envy them and partly rejoice that we didn’t have to be like that.

“Actors often feel guilty about all that side of their work. We think to ourselves that we should be like dancers and have to do it: every morning so many hours of exercise to keep the instrument in trim. It’s an overreaction really, but there is a sense in which English actors have maybe neglected their bodies.”

Vocally, and particularly in respect of verse speaking, he is inclined to feel that “the familiarity of dealing with the stuff nudges you towards a certain basic approach to it which becomes second nature. You learn to find the meaning in Shakespearean verse, and you also after that learn not to wrench the meaning out of the verse, but to understand that the verse is there to reflect the meaning very precisely.”

The sound of Shakespeare became part of his life during his early teens. Born in Cambridge in 1943, he was able a decade or so later to visit the Old Vic in London at the time when Michael Benthall was director there. “I was wide open: wide-eyed and wide-eared. I took in quite a lot of Shakespeare, and I suppose that the musical patterns of the speech had begun to be recognisable to me. But I was never taught it. I don’t know really why people make so much of it. Some actors suffer a great inferiority complex about it. I know excellent actors and actresses who for some reason or other haven’t done so much Shakespeare, and when they encounter a Shakespearean part for the first time they’re fearful that they won’t know how to do the verse.

“The whole thing of form and content is ironic. Dealing with ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, for instance, in which the language is QUOTE – artificial – UNQUOTE a lot of the time – courtly language, punning language, very highly formal – there is a temptation, often, to try and ignore the formal musical patterns of the verse in an attempt to ring some particular meaning out of a line. The curious thing about doing the play is that you find after a bit if you ignore rhyme or the metre or the strictly technical aspect of the verse, you simply cannot understand the meaning of what is being said. In some odd way, the form makes the content clearer. And often doing the show, we remind ourselves – or John Barton the director does – to throw the ball back and forward more. Often when a rhyme is shared between two characters, you must hear those technical, metrical things, and then you understand – and the audience will understand – the meaning of the line.”

The lure of Shakespeare's words, to which he succumbed so easily in the ‘50s, began for Pennington with ‘Macbeth’, as played at the Vic by Paul Rogers. “It was a very powerful, theatrical, blood-boltered production, and I responded to it with great excitement. I also saw Richard Burton and John Neville alternate Othello and Iago: that’s a tradition I would like to see come back, alternating those two, and Romeo and Mercutio.”

The heady hours at the Vic left him in no doubt about the kind of work he wanted to do when his schooling was finished. In fact, a considerable effort of will was needed to keep his mind on the lessons. “I got over all the hurdles you had to get over, but my thoughts were elsewhere most of the time. It’s a classic stage-struck story. At some point along the line that enthusiasm turns into a serious determination to do it, and to do it well.”

For a short time he joined the National Youth theatre, which meant that he was playing in London’s West End at the age of eighteen, albeit in a very small rôle in ‘Richard II’. Then he began studying English at Cambridge University, and found it necessary to choose between continuing with the National Youth theatre or acting in university productions. “I chose Cambridge, because there was more going on – a greater variety. The thing was that no dramatic society was allowed by university rules to do more than one production a term, and that production could run for one week only. So the answer was to form all sorts of different dramatic societies, which differed only in name but were basically involving all the same people. There was not only the Marlowe Society but the Cambridge University Mummers and the Footlights and the University Actors – all these names but absolutely the same people, doing two or three plays a term, in the manner of a three-weekly rep.

“English was the closest course to take. It was possible to get through the whole English tripos referring only to drama. You could even do the French paper by writing about Racine, and the Philosophy paper by referring to the state of the cinema and the state of the theatre. It was much the easiest option for me. I don’t know whether I should have got through, but I did. And I acted in about thirty plays in three years.”

Nevertheless there was no RADA or other traditional dramatic school background to quote when the time came to seek work in the professional theatre. A modicum of luck was needed to augment experience, and it wasn’t lacking. “I was ready to go into rep. and do it the ‘proper’ way. I wrote all the letters in my last couple of terms at Cambridge. But my stroke of luck was that in one term I was able to play both Hamlet and Troilus, which got enough good reviews to prompt the RSC to approach me – this was in Peter Hall’s time. They simply asked me if I’d like to come and hold a spear for a year and a half. So I made that kind of start with the RSC immediately, and while I was there I did a Fortinbras in David Warner’s ‘Hamlet’ – that was the sort of line of part that I got to. I wasn’t really going anywhere, so I left, and didn’t return to the company for ten years, by which time, of course, there was a new directorate.

The consequence of all that was I never did do any traditional rep. Because after I left Stratford I came to London and my television work started happening, as well as some stage work. At the time I used to worry about whether I should have been doing those weekly grinds for a year or two – but I don’t really think it matters in the end. It was a funny piece of serendipity that caused the beginning of my career to work out that way.”

His early professional rôles were often stimulating. The Sam Shepard one-actor ‘Chicago’ afforded him a notable monologue, as a man whose wife has left him: “very odd and heightened in Shepard’s own particular way.” At the Royal court in 1971 he was in ‘Captain Jack’s Revenge’ – “that was a time when it was fashionable, and also seemed good, to do plays about American students sitting around getting stoned in New York and having fantasies about Indians.”

He was Laertes in the Tony Richardson production of ‘Hamlet’, with Nicol Williamson in the lead, at the Roundhouse and subsequently in New York and in the film version; and he played the anthropologist Crawshaw in Christopher Hampton’s ‘Savages’ at the Royal Court and then at the Comedy in 1973. The following year he returned to the RSC.

His highly praised Berowne in the current ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ has an uncommon reverberation for him. His very first speaking part during his tyro period with the company was the same character in an earlier production by the same director, John Barton. “I had been cast as Dumaine and played that, but I also understudied Berowne, and got to play it for about two months: a very odd experience in my early twenties. It wasn’t a happy production and I wasn’t much good. Now it’s really warming to think that the director has returned to the play after this length of time and done very much better with it – and I’m glad to be part of that.”

Among his other Shakespearean rôles to date, he has vivid memories of the fortitude required for Edgar in ‘Lear’: “ Edgar’s a part that seems to defeat everybody, and it’s also a part that everybody seems to play on the way to more important things. It has extraordinary difficulties to it, and playing the Duke in ‘Measure for Measure’ now reminds me of it, although the Duke is a much better and more satisfying part. The same questions arise as to the character’s motivation, why he does what he does. A peculiar man, Edgar: he seems to have a fascination with disguise, which is way out of proportion. The problem with the part is that it presents all the problems of ‘Hamlet’ without any of the rewards, and it also probably requires the amount of attention spent on it in rehearsal that Hamlet would, but never gets it because Edgar’s a supporting part, in every sense: his whole function in the play is supportive.”

Nevertheless Edgar, if well played, can make quite an impact, as did Pennington’s, notwithstanding the excellence of Donald Sinden’s Lear. “But the impact comes mainly through the Poor Tom disguise”, Pennington believes. “And after you’ve explored it, and tried to work out the right way of doing it, you come slap up against the fact that he’s only there as something that further unhinges Lear’s mind. The more you get into the private fascination of the part, the less well you serve the play. It’s interesting to do: a long part and very taxing physically, but strangely unsatisfying because there are too many questions unanswered about him.”

Quite another kind of challenge, and one he met admirably, was Mirabell in Barton’s 1978 production at the Aldwych of ‘The Way of the World’. This was Pennington’s first brush with Restoration comedy. “I’ve always been intrigued by the question of how to deal with something as highly formal as that, without sacrificing the realities. With Mirabell you find after a bit that he doesn’t have very many funny lines. Most of the other characters have the best lines, as far as Congreve’s reputation as a comic writer is concerned. Mirabell’s tone is much graver and more still: it’s very good and very distinctive, but he’s not that funny. So that one was resisting the temptation to make him the sparkling centre of the play, and instead was actually trying to provide through him a kind of moral focus, and a coolness and an intelligence which was criticised in some quarters at the time. But I think that was probably the right way of doing it.

“I think if you made Mirabell as much of a peacock, as extrovert and as brilliant as the people surrounding him, you’d have no anchor for the play at all; and his function in relation to Millament is not that of two brilliant wits competing – it’s a case of a brilliant woman and a foil, a man who bides his time. Of course he expresses himself well, but his remarks are not as diamond-like as hers. So we took a conscious decision with that which, I suppose, if we were to do it again, we might reconsider: I don’t know, maybe some of the tones got a bit washed out. But fundamentally I think it was the right interpretation.”

A special ‘treat’ was Mercutio: “The part is a gift. I didn’t think I could do it when I was originally cast, but it turned into something which was a terrific pleasure, and I’m reminded of it a great deal now I’m playing Berowne: they’re two of Shakespeare’s young men, written right at the beginning of his career, and both rôles have to do with promise, unfulfilled of course in Mercutio’s case; and then Berowne, a man of inventiveness and imagination, whose emotional responses lag behind the speed of his mind. The imbalance between the intellect and the emotions crop up a lot in Shakespeare’s men, but in a very brilliant and vivid was in those two early portraits, in the case of Berowne perhaps an element of self-portrait.”

All told, he has made satisfactory inroads upon the Shakespearean canon, especially for one who was hooked on the Bard in the first place. One wonders if he would like to be a totally Shakespearean actor, and never do anything else. But no. “That would be a dreadful thing. Between my two RSC periods, except for the Laertes for Tony Richardson I didn’t do any Shakespeare at all. I think I would have been drawn into acting just the same if it had been Chekhov or a revue or anything. They say that when we come to do RSC productions of modern works, like ‘Destiny’, David Edgar’s play about racial politics, the sense of language you develop through working in Shakespeare helps you in some way. ,I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do believe the basic rules are the same whether you’re doing ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ on the one hand or a Howard Barker play on the other, and I don’t think actors spend a great deal of time worrying about it. I would be appalled to think that I would only ever do Shakespeare, and I would consider a season at Stratford very incomplete indeed without an opportunity to work at The Other Place, preferably in a new play. Otherwise one would be in severe danger of always thinking in blank verse.”

‘Hippolytus’, of course, is a new play with classical affiliations. Euripides as translated by David Rudkin would imply a meeting of ancient and modern minds. “Rudkin’s language”, says Pennington, “is very particular to him. It’s highly poetic: it’s in no sense naturalistic prose dialogue. He was very concerned, as a responsible translator, to serve the original Greek. He used to say that sometimes he felt it a pity that he knew the original so well, because he had such a great sense of responsibility towards it. Nevertheless it is a new play.

“It’s a fascinating story. It was only recently, when I was playing it in Newcastle just before the London season, that I really thought I’d grasped the rôle. I understand it better. It’s taken a run in Stratford to get to that point. When I was first offered it I thought it a tiresome story about a silly uptight young man who likes games and hates girls, and I didn’t especially want to do it. But now I know that I was wrong about that. The character has a positive energy and an idealism which I didn’t see at first. The playing of it is very rewarding, and very taxing as well – it requires a certain kind of concentration. And it’s physically hard. But I love it.”

Concentration, one would assume, must be harder to sustain in the studio environment, like The Other Place and the Warehouse, whose actors are in such vulnerably close proximity to their audiences. But according to Pennington, actors embrace that, because it’s so dangerous. “Most first nights that I remember at The Other Place have gone well, in a way that main-house first nights sometime don’t. I think the very nearness of people, and the scrutiny that you’re under, do bring out the best in most of us, because you have no option but to concentrate.

“And when you’re dealing with something like ‘Hippolytus’, which is a heightened text as well, then obviously you really have to be onto it. You can’t get away with everything, in other words I like The Other Place; I think it’s a marvellous space. The roof still creaks a bit, and there’s still an agreeably makeshift atmosphere. It’s still possible to make grand entrances from the ladies loo. It’s the kind of environment that gives us a link with the barnstormers. Of course, budgets go up and that’s quite right, and things are done in a more polished way every year at The Other Place, but it retains the sawdust feeling, which is very attractive.”

The resilience of the itinerant player is his as well. A few years ago the RSC sent him on a tour of Europe and the Far East in the anthologies, ‘The Hollow Crown’ and ‘Pleasure and Repentance’, winding up in Japan, whereupon he decided to travel home across Siberia. He has written a book about the journey, called ‘Rossya’, which was published last year. “I’d often had a fancy to try and do that train ride, but of course I’d never organised it because you can’t really travel eastwards unless you are going there to stay, otherwise what are you going to do when you get to the other end? So I thought this was the perfect opportunity. There were three or four weeks before I had to get back, so I did it slowly. The book is a sort of escapade: I don’t take myself too seriously as a writer.” Nevertheless if is a noteworthy extra string to a formidable bow.

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