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Daily Mail, 23rd November 2007, Quentin Letts

 

Michael Pennington, one of our great old thesps, first came across Shakespeare aged 11 when he was dragged to see Macbeth at London’s Old Vic. It hit him, he says, like a hammer.

 

Young Michael rushed home, pulled the text of Macbeth off the shelves and started to read it aloud. Before that day young Pennington had been gripped by football. Afterwards, however, he barely talked again about Tottenham Hotspur.

 

He has been at it pretty much ever since and calculates that he has spent 20,000 hours on stage playing Shakespeare. He has now assembled a one-man show about the Bard which skilfully mixes his life story with brief clips from some of his plays.

 

It is an approachable work of literary analysis in which Mr Pennington wears his deep knowledge with light charm.

 

This production is not a play in any sense. It’s ‘plot’ is nothing more than an examination of the way Shakespeare started as a youthful romantic and gradually became more political, ending his creative life as a sardonic, contemplative playwright.

 

He was ‘sweet’ William because he was so honey-tongued, but also because babies at that time often had a sweet substance placed on their tongues after birth.

 

It all makes for an agreeably old-fashioned, bookish sort of evening which could easily qualify for translation to BBC radio or even upmarket television.

 

To find Mr Pennington performing in plain black clothes, with nothing more than a wooden chair for props on a bare stage at the Arcola Theatre in North London, is somehow a very English experience.

 

In the U.S., an actor of his experience would scarce consider playing to the audience of about 25 who were at the Arcola on Tuesday night.

 

On the Continent, the capital’s intellectuals would descend with weighty tread. But here in England it’s a slightly thread-bare crowd of middle-class bumblers. They listened closely and appreciatively.

 

Part of the pleasure of the show is Mr Pennington’s rich gravy of a voice. It is an instrument you could never tire of hearing, being classical yet not grand, resonant but not dissolute or artsy.

 

He runs through some of the ‘throng’ of voices produced by Shakespeare, from Cleopatra to the drunken prisoner Barnadine in Measure for Measure (so furious to be disturbed from his sleep and told it is time for his execution). En route we hear how the talented young Shakespeare infuriated his rival Robert Greene, who attacked him as a “an upstart crow”.

 

Mr Pennington exercises a theory he has that Shakespeare was a libidinous travelling actor in his youth.

 

There is also some persuasive stuff about his later career as a theatre impresario in the London of James I, the monarch whose corrupt court was skewered in Timon of Athens. Mr Pennington hints that Shakespeare was a lefty. Certainly possible.

 

Theatre buffs, A-level English pupils, history enthusiasts, admirers of fine verse speaking: all will find plenty to admire in this assured tour of the Shakespearean estate by one of its most besotted addicts. Michael Pennington has done ‘sweet William’ – and himself – proud.

 

 

The Telegraph, 22nd November 2007, Charles Spencer

 

Yes, I know, the postcode is deepest Dalston, where most folk would think twice about braving the streets after dark. But it’s worth the journey for this delightful and illuminating show about our national poet performed by one of our finest thesps.

 

Michael Pennington describes being hit by Shakespeare as if by a hammer blow at the age of 11, when his parents took him to see Macbeth at the Old Vic. He can still recall the production in vivid detail half a century later,  and it sparked a love of Shakespeare, his characters and his language that persists to this day.

 

Pennington reckons he has spent 20,000 hours of his life playing Shakespeare on stage, not to count those spent rehearsing, thinking, reading and writing about him. And he speaks the verse beautifully, in tones that are sonorous and expressive without becoming over-ripe, and with an understanding that illuminates even the knottiest passages.

 

The show offers an exceptionally knowledgeable guided tour around the man and his work, with Pennington reciting favourite passages (many well off the beaten track), delivering the few certain facts about Shakespeare’s life, and embarking on speculations of his own about such vexed questions as the so called ‘missing years’ between Shakespeare leaving Stratford and his arrival in London.

 

Pennington thinks he was with a touring company of actors, which sounds sensible, though I’m convinced from the evidence of the plays that he also spent some of his time at sea.

 

Pennington is particularly good on Shakespeare’s language, savouring its richness and variety, but also showing how it works.

 

He compares Marlowe’s gift for the rhetorical “mighty line” with Shakespeare’s knack of seizing on the simple detail, the homely image, and the power of monosyllables and half-lines. And he brilliantly shows how the young writer found his distinctive voice, unlike many previously heard, in such plays as the three parts of Henry VI and The Comedy of Errors.

 

Pennington is perceptive on children in Shakespeare (they mostly come to sticky ends), while his suggestion that if you scratch a tragic hero you’ll usually find a fool strikes me as bang on the money.

 

He mercifully retreats from describing Shakespeare as a proto-Marxist, but does detect both subversive radicalism and barely disguised criticism of the excesses of James I in the plays.

 

Perhaps. But I would suggest that the constant insistence on order and social standing in his work could just as easy make him seem like a high Tory.

 

I was also sorry that Pennington didn’t spend more time discussing the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet,  which seems to me to be one of the greatest influences on his world view. But Shakespeare in inexhaustible and you can’t hope to touch on everything in two hours.

 

Still, what a superb and constantly stimulating guide Pennington proves. Now in his sixties and with snow-white hair, he still retains the enthusiasm and curiosity that made his switch his allegiance from Spurs to the Bard as a child. This warm, wise, illuminating show offers further proof that time spent in the company of Shakespeare is never wasted.

 

 

The Mail on Sunday, 25th November 2007, Georgina Brown

 

In Sweet William, Michael Pennington confesses that Shakespeare hit him like a hammer when he was taken, aged 11, by his parents to se Macbeth at the Old Vic. So began the sculpting by the Bard of one our most eloquent classical actors.

 

Having spent thousands of hours immersed in Shakespeare’s plays, Pennington gives us his personal, original and softly scholarly take on the playwright we know so little of other than he was a father at 18, was 32 when he lost one of his three children and was a countryman who knew the common Warwickshire names for wild flowers.

 

Pennington’s perceptions are fascinating, his verse-speaking is a pleasure. Like Dame Judy Dench, he calls a soldier a ‘souldear’ rather than a ‘sojah’ without it feeling forced.

 

Snowy-haired, his face and voice powerfully expressive – and as expert at suggesting the wiliness of Cleopatra as the authenticity of Flute, the bellows mender – he slips in and out of the plays that clearly create the landscape of his own mind.

 

An intimate, enriching encounter.

 

 

Evening Standard, 25th November 2007, Fiona Mountford

 

If you plan to see one biography-of-Shakespeare show in your life, it might as well be Sweet William. After all, its writer-performer is the affable, erudite and mellifluous RSC stalwart Michael Pennington who, smitten by the iambic pentameter after a trip to see Macbeth at the age of 11, has clocked up more than 20,000 stage hours performing Shakespeare. For a look at the man, as well as sensitively performed excerpts from his work, Pennington is the one.

 

And yet I would contest that this peculiar sub-genre, an uneasy halfway house between lecture hall and theatre, is one best avoided by actors and audience alike. I still shudder at the memory of Susannah York skipping around, middle-aged and white-clad, recounting her youthful triumphs as Juliet. The trouble is, that however finely wrought the surrounding text, the passages of Shakespeare cannot but feel disembodied. We haven’t built up to any of the emotional contained therein, giving an impostor-like sensation. For the performer, it’s acting at its most artificial, which sits uneasily in today’s hyper-realistic clime.

 

Mercifully, Pennington doesn’t wear white or skip but stands still or sits like an avuncular Jackanory storyteller in a wooden chair, the only prop on the large, bare stage. Without turning the piece into a tedious study-guide chronology, he takes us elegantly through Shakespeare’s life and work, from early Warwickshire days to the arrival of this ‘upstart crow’ in London, through to the patronage of James I, whose licentious court Shakespeare so subtly parodied in Timon of Athens.

 

Pennington sensibly avoids Now That’s What I Call Shakespeare numbers from Hamlet and Henry V, concentrating instead on lesser-known speeches from the likes of Henry VI Part Three. His gently wry mockery of the Shakespearean tourist tat of modern-day Stratford leaves us wanting slightly more contemporary commentary, as well as a greater account of Pennington ‘s own relationship with the playwright.

 

It worked beautifully for Dominic Dromgoole in his recent book Will and Me, so it would be a guaranteed success for someone with Pennington’s knowledge and experience. Bitter-sweet William, all in all.

 

 

What’sonStage, 26th November 2007, Michael Coveney

 

More a friendly lecture than a show, Michael Pennington’s solo Shakespeare evening Sweet William is still one of the most entertaining and instructive evenings imaginable.

 

As in his marvellous users guides to three of the plays (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night), Pennington wears his learning and experience at a fresh and jaunty angle, never pulverising the audience with strenuous theories or madcap readings. He simply takes the plays as he finds them.

 

Sometimes, though, the plays become enriched by their context for him, as did Henry V in the Falklands campaign, or Coriolanus during the Ceaucescu regime, or indeed King Lear on the day that John Major castigated the homeless in London as an eyesore. And some of Pennington’s chronological deductions are beautifully unforced, such as suggesting that the gluttonous, fashion-obsessed court of King James is a satirical target in Timon of Athens after the thinly veiled flattery of Macbeth.

 

Pennington starts by the excitement of discovery when, aged 11, a performance of Macbeth at the Old Vic (Paul Rogers and Ann Todd) quite dispels his enthusiasm for Tottenham Hotspur. With an actor’s insight, he suggests that Shakespeare, in his ‘missing’ years, could have just as easily run away with the touring players as serve as a soldier, a sailor or government spy, which are more common theories.

 

It’s an attractive idea. That sense of ‘discovering’ the theatre informs how Pennington sees Flute’s Thisbe in The Dream, where an actor suddenly finds himself able to still an audience with his farewell to Pyramus, not guying the lines. He relishes above all the Shakespearean mix of high and low, great verse and rough speech, and the artistry with which he oscillates between the two levels with no crashing of gears.

 

He treats us to wonderfully lucid recitals of great speeches of Berowne, Gloucester at the end of Henry VI, Hamlet and Antony. And he strikes at the heart of Shakespeare’s poetic genius in the expertly infected dialogues of Touchstone and Corin, Shallow and Silence, the sleepy Barnadine and his prison officer in Measure for Measure.

 

In all of this, it is Shakespeare’s humanity that Pennington celebrates, his greatness of spirit. And the actor does so with such wit and intelligence, you feel genuinely grateful that such a career has been sustained over 40 years from Cambridge to the RSC, and from the English Shakespeare Company he ran with Michael Bogdanov to his easy, unforced eminence. Bravo!

 

Time Out London, 28th November 2007, Jane Edwardes

 

The Edinburgh Festival is always stiff with one-person shows presented by well known actors who like the idea of a little something to fall back on. But this is a cut above the rest. Michael Pennington, who abandoned Spurs for Shakespeare when he was taken to see Macbeth at the age of 11, is well placed to talk about the Stratford playwright having, he reckons, spent 20,000 hours on stage performing in Shakespeare’s plays. He’s also written a book on Hamlet that is a perfect combination of erudition and practical experience. In spite of an eccentric seating plan that forces him to try and face in two directions at once, he could hardly be more laid-back as he wanders on in a baggy jumper for an evening that is part lecture and part performance. How many professors on this subject could lurch from textual analysis into such a splendid rendering of “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I?” Apart from Hamlet, he seizes the chance to perform those roles that will never come his way, from Mistress Quickly to Barnadine, using them to show how Shakespeare is the master of the shift from high poetic utterance to low detail.

 

The actor was one of the founding members of the English Shakespeare Company, an outfit passionately committed to exploring Shakespeare the argumentative, political playwright, and Pennington sees him as a man who was disgusted by the excesses of the Jacobean, while ignoring his role in enclosing the land of his fellow Stratfordians. But it’s the depth of the actor’s insights and the originality of his choices that make this different from naff Bardolatory. The show could well have a similarly inspirational effect on today’s 11-year-olds who have already seen and enjoyed a couple of the plays.


Reviews Gate, 1st December 2007, Timothy Ramsden


In this mix of lecture, one-way conversation and recital, Michael Pennington distils thoughts from decades playing and studying Shakespeare. Often, he accepts, his ideas are only theories, for the writer quoted more often than any other  cannot be pinned down to a single opinion.


Yet Shakespeare recreated Elizabethan London repeatedly in his plays. And he stood alone in his variety of expression; rhetorical language suddenly slips into low-key, everyday chatter. So, it’s no wonder Pennington ends with one of the most marvellous of all scenes, the Gloucestershire orchard where two old justices recall their youth and, without any overt ‘statement’, juggle life and death in their quiet conversation.


As Shakespeare’s male protagonists become more unbalanced, the women find ways of asserting themselves; neither  Viola nor Measure for Measure’s Isabella actually accepts the marriage proposals they receive. His greatest lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, speak glorious verse about love to anyone except each other.

 

Pennington’s strong on Shakespeare’s use of language to argue; unsurprisingly, his own acting’s rooted in analysing the ideas in a speech. He explains how the playwright developed the art of soliloquy. And he’s strong on Shakespeare’s political strengths; the Romans’ demand fro bread in Coriolanus were first heard by the audiences who’d just experienced bread riots, while King Lear’s speeches about wealth and poverty were daringly provocation at the court of James I, whose livery Shakespeare wore.


Yet this political animal also knew the world of flowers; the Dream’s “love-in-idleness” was a name from his Warwickshire birthplace. And there’s a sweetness to Pennington’s view of Shakespeare the grandfather writing about rebirth.


He misquotes playwright Robert Greene, who satirised Shakespeare as a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” (“woman’s hide” was the original Henry VI, Part 3 line”). And I’m not convinced by his view of sudden seriousness in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. But he’s revealing on A Winter’s Tale’s Mamillius.  


Blessed with a vioce that, almost simultaneously, sounds deep resonance and quiet consolation, Pennington infuses his love of Shakespeare through two hours that will delight and inspire anyone who themself’s the least bi sweet on William.





 

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