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 Little Angel Theatre


The Financial Times, 22nd August 2007

 

The Little Angel is a puppet theatre. It’s normal, then, for every onstage performer to have an invisible companion guiding their moves. And in a sense, ‘Sweet William’ is no exception. For, although this is a solo piece performed by a live actor, you could say there are always two people in this show: Michael Pennington, the actor, and William Shakespeare, a tantalising unseen presence. For this is not simply a show about Shakespeare, it is a personal response from a fine actor who fell for Shakespeare at the age of 11 and has been in thrall ever since.

 

The piece’s appeal lies partly in its simplicity. Pennington stands, or occasionally sits, on an unadorned stage and talks to us. On one level he offers a quick jog through Shakespeare’s life; on another he gives the narrative of his relationship with the playwright’s life. The show is laced with anecdotes, historical insights and textual analysis, all delivered with easy charm.

 

Pennington offers a vivid picture of the London that Shakespeare first encountered, describing London Bridge, with its public convenience perched perilously over the River Thames. He suggests that the writer’s missing years (between childhood in Stratford and arrival in London) could have been spent as a travelling player. He talks about Shakespeare’s innovative use of the soliloquy, and sets it in the context of the size of the Elizabethan stage. He discusses the emotional import of Shakespeare’s choice to lurch from “high poetry to intimate human detail” and the trust this places in the actor to take that moment forward.

 

But what makes the show is that Pennington is able to show us glimpses of Shakespeare’s genius in action. He slips suddenly into one character or another, paying particular attention to the very young, the very old and those on the sidelines. And he demonstrates Shakespeare’s ability to catch you unawares with a heartfelt performance of Francis Flute’s lament for Pyramus (from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) that reveals how amusing this apparently clumsy speech can be.

 

 

 

The Guardian, 22nd August 2007, Michael Billington

 

Michael Pennington is what Richard II calls a “well-graced actor”. But in this brilliant one-man show Pennington combines his performance skills with textual scholarship and practical knowledge to give us as well-rounded a portrait of Shakespeare and his art as you could hope for in two hours.

 

In offering is a sketch of Shakespeare’s life, Pennington provides an abundance of insight. He suggests that, in the famous “missing years” between his departure from Stratford and arrival in London, Shakespeare was a touring actor and the kind of “company member who was always complaining about the script”. But he goes on to claim that Shakespeare was, in the broadest sense, a political writer. “If you scratch a great hero, you find a complete ass,” says Pennington of the tragic protagonists; and he sees, in the plays written in the Jacobean era, a sharp, incisive criticism of privilege and the corruption, treachery and dissimulation within the court.

 

But what makes Pennington different from most academics is that he can illustrate his ideas through performance. He demonstrates Shakespeare’s ability “to lurch from high poetry to intimate human detail” with a soliloquy from Henry VI. He makes a telling point about the multi-ethnic nature of Shakespeare’s London with a riff from The Comedy of Errors about an obese kitchenmaid. And he proves Shakespeare’s gift for investing minor figures with super-abundant life by invoking “the briefly great figure of Barnadine” in Measure for Measure who obstinately refuses to be hanged. He doesn’t just tell us about Shakespeare: he also vividly shows.

 

You could argue that he doesn’t address, as Bond’s Bingo famously does, Shakespeare’s transition into questionable Stratford landowner. But what you get is a distillation of an actor’s experience and the thrill of vivacious performance. Whether as the boy Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale, Mistress Quickly or the senile Shallow and Silence in Henry IV, Pennington embraces the infinite variety found in Shakespeare's world.

 

 

Times Online, 23rd August 2007, Benedict Nightlingale

 

From the age of 11, when his parents dragged him to the Old Vic to see Paul Rogers’s Macbeth emerge “from one of the doorways of hell”, Michael Pennington has been Bard-mad. Not only has he spent some 20,000 hours onstage in Shakespeare’s plays. He has now concocted a one-man show that’s part biography, part analysis, part performance, and a large-spirited salute to this “unprecedented, ungovernable talent”.

 

Shakespeare is a magic mirror in whose myriad panes we can each see what most matters to us. For Pennington, he’s the poet who juxtaposed the magnificent and the startlingly ordinary, the dramatist with the fondness for transgressors, the tragedian whose great men were foolish and flawed, the Warwickshire lad who always retained his loyalty to his country, the lover who eventually lost his belief in love, the family man who ended up writing painfully yet wishfully about the disintegration and reunion of families.

 

But Pennington co-founded the now-lapsed English Shakespeare Company, whose prime aim was to show how topical and challenging the plays remained. So his Bard is, above all, the dramatist who liked to subvert conventional expectations, the Establishment figure with the anti-Establishment instincts, the man who was in effect one of James I’s couriers yet wrote surreptitious attacks on this spoilt king and his entourage. But here I think he exaggerates, giving Timon’s hatreds and Lear’s denunciations of injustice an immediacy I’m not sure they had.

 

Yet this only adds to the show’s first-hand feel. And since Pennington is also a major actor, he persistently bolsters his arguments by delivering brief excerpts from the plays, and mostly unusual ones: Hamlet and Lear, yes, but also the shepherd Corin, the wild drunkard Barnadine, flute-playing Thisbe in The Dream, and, from The Winter’s Tale, the doomed Mamillius, whose childish confusions will now mean more when I encounter them next.

 

I’m grateful for that, but also for the mix of grace and incisiveness. It’s as if Chekhov, whom this warm, mellow actor has celebrated in another solo show, was saluting Shakespeare. No wonder Sweet William is such a delight.

 

 

The Independent, 29th August 2007, Paul Taylor

 

Michael Pennington has been bonkers about the Bard from the age of 11 when his parents dragged him to the Old Vic and he was mesmerised by Macbeth. Since then he has, by his own reckoning, spent 20,000 hours on stage performing Shakespeare, to say nothing of the hours devoted to reading and rehearsing the works. This accumulated experience is distilled now in Sweet William, a wonderfully perceptive one-man show that interweaves biography, autobiography, performance, cultural commentary and textual analysis.

 

The two hours teem with the insights of a highly intelligent practical man of the theatre on a practical man of the theatre who was a genius. For example, picking up clues from one of the Sonnets and with the insider-knowledge of how performers write home, Pennington develops the theory that in his so-called “lost years” between leaving Stratford and surfacing in London, Shakespeare was a touring actor and the sort of company member who was always complaining about the script. The difference in the Bard’s case is that his dreams of improving on the stuff he had to spout as a player were not self-deceiving.

 

Crucial to the new voice that Shakespeare brought to the stage, argues Pennington, was the ability to “lurch” between high-flown poetry and intimate human detail – “the simple, banal or off-the-point”. Taking a scene in the third part of Henry VI, he suggests that Christopher Marlowe could have written York’s ringing line about Queen Margaret “O, tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide”, but the Queen’s reference to York’s son Richard as “Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice/Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies” adds a note of (here insolent) domestic intimacy to her jeering that is characteristically Shakespeare.

 

Pennington notes that contemporary writers, such as Robert Greene, were piqued that Shakespeare collapsed the class distinction between vulgar actor and genteel author. Likewise, professional commentators on Shakespeare may now feel a twinge of envy that Pennington has the edge on them by being able to illustrate his perceptions with such deft, lucid performances. You emerge from this graceful show with your sense of Shakespeare refreshed and augmented.

 

 

The Sunday Times, 2nd September 2007, John Peter

 

Michael Pennington is the thinking man’s actor: he is steeped in Shakespearean knowledge, and he shares it with you with the modest generosity of a drinking partner. This is a one-man show about Shakespeare: a lecture, an entertainment, a brief biography, a homage to the greatest dramatist who ever lived. Pennington has played most of the big parts, and he knows what makes them tick, what makes them love, kill, laugh or despair. He talks about Mamillius, the doomed little son of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and you are mesmerised by the way he gets into the child’s mind.

 

His remark that Shakespeare’s language created a new acting style deserves a book. The way he delivers a sonnet reveals how the poetry of a playwright, such as Harold Pinter’s recent poems, works as a piece of theatre. I was quite amused by his remark that Shakespeare was not an intellectual. Who but an intellectual could have written Measure for Measure or The Tempest? Pennington probably knows that the word might frighten the horses. Ah, well. This show is a gem. If I weren’t a Shakespeare junkie, Pennington would have turned me into one.

 


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