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Pennington’s love letter to Shakespeare, his best friend


Camden New Journal, 16th August 2007, Simon Wroe


In 1955, at a performance of Macbeth at the Old Vic Theatre, Michael Pennington first met Shakespeare. His parents had dragged him there as a sulky 11-year-old, who “just wanted to think about Tottenham Hotspur”, but he left the theatre as a convert.


“It was extremely atmospheric,” he remembers, “real blood and thunder Shakespeare, and it absolutely did it for me. It was like hearing music for the first time. That was the night my life was pretty much settled.”


More than 50 years later, now 64, Michael’s name is synonymous with the great playwright. The Islington actor has performed almost the entire canon around the world with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National, or with his own contemporary company The English Shakespeare Company (set up with the renowned theatre director Michael Bogdanov).


“I’ve done so much to do with Shakespeare I thought it was time I accounted for it,” Michael admits. “This is like a love letter to your best friend who happens to be a very famous author.”


Sweet William, Michael’s one-man show which plays for a week at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington from Monday, is a heartfelt dedication to the author who has formed the cornerstone of Michael’s celebrated career, interweaving the bard’s history and his work with the actor’s own opinions and experiences.


Though there are speeches from Hamlet, Cleopatra and Richard III, Michael insists it will not be the “usual chestnuts”. Speeches from Timon of Athens, The Winter’s Tale and the rarely performed yet blood-curdling speech by the hunchbacked Richard of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III) in Henry VI Part III all feature.


There’s humour too. “Shakespeare is one of the dirtiest writers who ever wrote,” proclaims Michael. “He couldn’t resist a dirty joke.”


Recently Michael has been playing Robert Maxwell alongside Mother Theresa in The Bargain at the Theatre Royal Bath, Charles Dickens in a play about his love life, plus a turn as Bomber Harris in the HBO-produced film Churchill at War.


Yet, without doubt, Shakespeare has been the “vertebrae of his working life. “The dream roles change over the years,” he says. “I missed out on Romeo, but it’s Hamlet when you’re a young man, and Lear when you reach my age. That’s one thing I haven’t done and I’m slightly daunted by – Lear is enormous.”


He adds: “There’s a myth about Shakespeare that we don’t know anything about his life. In fact we do know quite a lot about him, it is just that his talent baffles us. Nothing you could find out would explain his genius.”


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