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Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis


Star Tribune.com, 12th December 2007, Graydon Royce


William Shakespeare “crept up and hit me like a hammer when I was 11 years old,” says British actor Michael Pennington at the beginning of his two-hour discourse on the bard’s life and work. The felicitous discovery seems still fresh in Pennington’s soul all these decades later, as he demonstrates in Sweet William, which opened at the Guthrie Proscenium for a two-week run.


Pennington’s love letter to Shakespeare draws on some 20,000 hours performing his work and many thousands more spent researching, analyzing, reading, pondering the work so that it has become “as present as white noise” in his life.


His manifest is not biography in the exhaustive sense. Rather, he offers a slice of his observations, illustrated with small scenes from the canon. Pennington connects the dots of Shakespeare’s life with a supple surety that relies less on historical record than it does on the revelations in his texts.


Pennington suggests that Shakespeare’s mind churned constantly as a young actor faced with poor dialogue. “He took the bad lines he’d read as an actor and refined them in his head for other actors.”


Too, the British actor/director divines Shakespeare’s political convictions from the insistent and sharp critique in King Lear, and the subversive suggestion that not even the love of Romeo and Juliet can deter their warring families from violence. Pennington sees in Hamlet a playwright wondering whether we want someone in power who is a bad person but a good king, or a good person who might stumble as a leader.


Heroes are brought low in Shakespeare, tripped up by fools and commoners.


Pennington plumbs deeper for evidence than the well-known (clichéd?) soliloquies. For example, he cites lines from Timon of Athens to comment on the court of King James. He pauses on the dialogue of The Winter’s Tale to muse over Shakespeare’s thoughts about children.


All along, Pennington celebrates the ethereal highs of Shakespeare’s literature and its earthly lows – a range of humanity that rings through the centuries. And he does so with a voice and cadence that cradles each phrase with delicious inflection and meaning. The result is as lively and engaging a primer as one might hope for.



Howwastheshow.com, 12th November 2007, David de Young


If you’re not a Shakespeare fan, Sweet William is not the show for you. But if you are, whether of the academic, armchair or thespian sort, this show makes for an educational and enjoyable night on the town.


English actor Michael Pennington, perhaps best known by the American general public for his portrayal of Moff Jerjerrod in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, saw his first Shakespeare play, Macbeth, at the Old Vic in London at the age of 11. He was enthralled with the bard from that point on. Recently, Pennington put together this one man show (he had previously done a similar show about Anton Chekhov) in which he intersperses Shakespeare’s words from the plays and sonnets with facts and speculations about Shakespeare’s life and anecdotes about his own.


The two hour production (with a 20 minute intermission) had a recent run in the UK at The Little Angel, an intimate puppet theater in North London I used to frequent as a youngster. Sweet William opened stateside at the Guthrie in Minneapolis on Tuesday, December 11th. The limited engagement runs through December 22nd.


Pennington exhibits Shakespeare using excerpts from Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III, The Winter’s Tale and other plays. And he even explores Shakespeare’s so-called “lost years” (as much as one can as there’s not much known of the time between when Shakespeare left his birthplace in Stratford around 1585 and the time he started making his mark on the London theater scene in 1592). Pennington claims to have found clues in the sonnets to support his claim that the bard may have been a travelling actor during those years, albeit one who was “always complaining about the script.”


At intermission time, my companion remarked that she didn’t even need a break, despite the fact that Pennington had already been at it for a straight hour. It’s a testament to his ability to stand (and occasionally sit) on a stage empty save for an ornate chair, with no props other than a red handkerchief and still keep you interested. (If only my Shakespeare prof in college had been as readily able to pull off this feat!)


After intermission Pennington returned to the stage more casually dressed, looking almost youthful for his 64 years. He spoke of co-founding the English Shakespeare Company in 1986 (with Michael Bogdanov) out of an interest in presenting Shakespeare’s plays in more topical and modern interpretations than the Royal Shakespeare Company were doing at the time.


I found interesting Pennington’s suggestion that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes were most often men because women less frequently descend to the levels of foolishness required of such characters. I also found it helpful that Pennington explored the historical relationship of Shakespeare to James I of England, who was king for part of the time Shakespeare worked in London. He contrasted Shakespeare’s work under James to his work under Elizabeth I, who ruled England until 1603.


Pennington is versatile as – in the parlance of the times – all get go. The performance is delightful and well worth your money. Fittingly, Pennington wraps it all up with a citation of Shakespeare’s self-penned epitaph (“Cursed be he that moves my bones.”) He spoke of the fact that most of Shakespeare’s life had been spent practicing self-concealment (something that is, I think, more common in writers than is commonly suspected). He went as far as to suggest that Shakespeare is good for the health, and that getting together as we had done this night (as an audience) to partake of our own singular experiences was one of the more important things we can do.


He ended with a fitting quote from renowned movie producer and studio founder Samuel Goldwyn (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), who in referring to Shakespeare had once said, “Fantastic! And it was all written with a feather!”



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