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Michael Pennington:

The Bard and me


The Independent, 21st  August 2007


At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of amateur actors play in front of a court audience and rapidly learn that an aristocratic crowd can be the unkindest of all. The cast is under-rehearsed, and probably not much good; heckled, they lose their nerve, and the whole thing threatens to end like the climax of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Then Thisbe, played by a young bellows mender called Flute, comes upon the dead body of Pyramus: in her grief, she describes his lily lips and his cherry nose, his yellow cowslip cheeks, and wails that his eyes were as green as leeks.


Confronted with this language, the sophisticated audiences goes quiet, and so does our audience. Flute has become an actor, someone who puts himself into others’ shoes. He is standing on a platform that reflects his place in the universe: the canopy over the stage in the Elizabethan theatre being known as the heavens and the area beneath is as hell.


But his language if that of a Warwickshire countryman – Shakespeare’s accent – and it dissolves the boundaries in his audience so that they’re held on the same intake of breath.


We’ve been trying to catch that effect since, that surprise and metaphysical delicacy. I’ve been getting a taste of it since I started doing Sweet William. I’ve been mimicking Shakespeare’s ventriloquism by writing a narrative of his life out of which can step Prince Mamillius, Cleopatra, Mistress Quickly, Dromio, Pericles, Queen Margaret, Justice Shallow and Timon of Athens. I hold no brief for solo shows, but performing Shakespeare’s life side by side with his works has brought me closer to the man than a number of full-length performances I’ve given.


And he has been as present in my life as white noise. I’ve grown up amid a din of playing styles: the men of the 1950s staunch and no-nonsense, the women genteel and pretty; the rationalism of the 1960s; the free-for-all of the 1970s; the bombast of the 1980s; and now the distrust of Shakespeare’s long sentences.


I’ve weaved this way and that, never happier than with my and Michael Bogdanov’s company, dedicated to proving that everything in Shakespeare is part of an argument.


As we dodged the rats in Mumbai or reassured the Hong Kong police that our machine guns were plastic, our radicalism made me feel close to Shakespeare, the Shakespeare who went with his colleagues one winter’s day to dismantle their theatre and cart it across the river to rebuild it as the Globe.


We think we know all the facts. Born in Stratford opposite where the Food of Love Café and Mistress Quickly’s Olde English Eating House now stand, he disappeared with the players to London, abandoning his family. We hear his colleagues commenting on this runaway’s pleasant nature, his industriousness, his avoidance of debauchery, his ability to write so fluently that he hardly made a correction. This wasn’t a flamboyant intellectual. He was a genius who minded his own business, who felt his nature had become “subdued to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”.


The portraits are unrevealing, though the bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford suggests you wouldn’t want to cross him if you were a tenant farmer on his land. His life was a prolonged act of self-concealment that’s left the world more vibrant; we still don’t know any of his opinions, but we often quote from him without knowing it. He makes us all talented: sometimes we feel on the brink of seeing what he saw.


But there are things we don’t spot. We think of him as part of the great display of the Elizabethan Golden Age, but it was a culture that had all the paranoia of a police state, with the Star chamber working full tilt. Elizabeth’s approval of the theatre was highly conditional; Shakespeare’s company got into a number of scrapes, notably over Richard II, a play dealing with a monarch’s deposition.


But when James I came to the throne, the company’s standing and profits soared. They were given the royal patent within days, and played at court every three weeks.


But James’s world was everything Shakespeare hated: gluttonous, fashion-obsessed, corrupt. A fastidious man who valued sincerity and plain dealing, he’d become a queasy member of the Establishment. Unable to settle, he risked his neck more and more.


In Measure for Measure, the king featured as the “fantastical Duke of Dark Corners”; in Timon of Athens, James’s court was satirised so directly that the play was never performed in his lifetime; in Coriolanus, Shakespeare hinted at James’s mishandling of the recent famine and his brutal treatment of land-closure protesters.


Then, at the Christmas-time premiere of King Lear, the court had to listen to Lear declaring that robes and furred gowns hide all manners of vices. Shakespeare got away with it; but once you’ve spotted his privileged attempts on the conscience of the king, it’s hard to confuse the Elizabethan plays with the Jacobean.


This is one of the things I’m trying to attend to in Sweet William. Another is the possibility that in the face of Shakespeare’s ability to swing from high poetry to the calculatedly banal, his actors may have anticipated cinematic acting by 300 years. Leontes, confronted by his wife’s miraculous return to life in The Winter’s Tale, can only manage “O, she’s warm”; meanwhile, Lear, in his extremity, asks a soldier to sort out his buttons.


I’m also accounting for myself after half a century in the service, ever since Macbeth knocked my socks off when I was an 11-year-old: the witches, the bloodied ghost, the soft, pounding verse! Above all, I’m Flute, standing between heaven and hell, assuming nothing, feeling for Thisbe’s distress.


That’s what I told my mother I would one day be able to do; and all that I’ve learnt in approximately 20,000 hours of playing Shakespeare thus far doesn’t add up to a hill of beans if I can’t make some other 11-year-old sit up as I did when Macbeth saw his imaginary dagger in the air 50 years ago.

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