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Twelfth Night Across the Continents: An Interview with Michael Pennington


Shakespeare Bulletin 29, Winter 1996, David G. Brailow


Most Shakespeareans are familiar with Michael Pennington’s remarkable career as an actor, including many seasons with the RSC and National Theatre, as well as the English Shakespeare Company, which he founded with Michael Bogdanov. Less well known, at least in America, are his achievements as an author – his most recent book ‘Hamlet: A User’s Guide,’ has just appeared from Nick Hern – and as a director. In 1995, Pennington was invited to Chicago’s Shakespeare Repertory to direct ‘Twelfth Night’ (January – February 1996), a play that he had already directed twice before – once with the ESC and once with the Haiyauza Company in Tokyo. As he was preparing to start rehearsals for the Shakespeare Repertory production, I interviewed him on behalf of the company’s newsletter, ‘The Folio,’ in which portions of the following appeared. Our conversation began as a discussion of his plans for the Chicago production, but it quickly spread to a variety of subjects, including his experience directing in Japan. The company has kindly given me its permission to use this material. I am also grate to Pennington, who gave his permission as well and made a number of suggestions and additions, all of which improved the piece.


Brailow: I wanted to begin by asking what prompted you to accept Shakespeare Repertory’s invitation to direct ‘Twelfth Night’.


Pennington: I was struck, first of all, by the coincidence factor: I will have directed the play now three times. I did it for the English Shakespeare Company (my own company) about three or four years ago, in a production that visited Chicago as part of the Festival. I then had an invitation from the Haiyuza Company in Tokyo to direct them in it, in Japanese, which I did a year or two after. So I already felt I had some special relationship with the play. And the more I heard about Barbara Gaines’ company, the more interested I became. I had the impression this is an extremely energetic and creative group. I was struck by the fact that Barbara, unlike many national companies over here, does seem to do many of the lesser-known Shakespeares. I think that’s a marvellous thing to commit yourself to doing, to concentrate only on Shakespeare. I remember that, when I was stage struck as a teenager in the 1950s, the Old Vic in London went through the entire Shakespeare book in five years, and that’s what I grew up on, what turned me into a Shakespearean. It was a fantastic privilege to be able to see all those plays. What I understand of Shakespeare Repertory reminds me of that experience.


Brailow: The Japanese production seems to me to be a fascinating point of entry. I wonder if you could talk about directing ‘Twelfth Night’ in Japan.


Pennington: If the thing we most often say about Shakespeare is true, that is to say that he’s universal and nobody’s little piece of land, then obviously the way of testing it is to see how and if he works in different cultures. In Japan, the first problem was translation. Not being a Japanese speaker, I was dependent on the translation that I was given, and I was unable to assess how close it was to anything resembling the Shakespearean feel. In fact, the Japanese language doesn’t lend itself easily to the mixture of lyricism and realism that you see all the way through Shakespeare. It has some difficulty with an image like “build me a willow cabin at your gate,” for example, which tends to come out like “make me a nice wooden shed at the bottom of your garden.” There’s a certain lack of lift. I’m really reporting what Japanese people themselves say. But, of course, in a way I was immunized from all that because I couldn’t hear the difficulty. I could only see whether the actors in front of me were acting well, and you can tell when an actor is acting well even if you can’t understand what he or she is saying. You see the quality that is instantly communicable, which has nothing to do with the language at all.


Next, I found myself in a curious bind, which happens every time you work in a foreign language. I was hoping to reinterpret the play in Japanese terms, because it seems to me that for a Japanese company to do it any other was is silly. At the same time, I don’t want to do some sort of tourist Kabuki version of the play, something they wouldn’t have needed or wanted me to do in any case. What I was not prepared for was the extent to which the Japanese actors really wanted to become European actors. The Malvolio, for example, had heard about Laurence Olivier’s performance in 1956 at Stratford and wanted to know what business Olivier had done as Malvolio. I had to point out to him that, even if I could remember, it wouldn’t help him, and also that Malvolio was not one of Olivier’s great parts anyway, so he really shouldn’t concern himself too much with it. Initially, until I won their trust, there was real difficulty in persuading them to relate to their own traditions and their own culture in ways that would be useful to the play. If I were to say, “Don’t you think Orsino is somewhat like a Kyoto lord of the fourteenth or thirteenth century” it would embarrass the actors. I quickly realized that it was not wise to confront them with the challenge of saying, “Try everything in the Japanese way.” I had to do it more subtly.


The question follows as to why they need an English director to come and do that. Well, sometimes a visitor sees things better than a local director would. It was a fascinating exercise. It proved to me that actors all over the world are the same.


Although it was frustrating because of the language, the play worked in certain ways very well indeed. In particular, it benefited from a quality the Japanese actors have, which is an instinctive sense of composition on the stage. They group themselves and prove sensitive to each other in ways that sometimes European actors don’t. They have an in-built sense of territory that is very interesting in the theatre. Once I managed to persuade them not to be afraid of being Japanese, I think it worked very well.  


Brailow: What was the audience response like?


Pennington: The opening night was very respectful. While the audience eventually warmed up and felt they were able to laugh, there was a reservation about Shakespeare, a feeling that even Andrew Aguecheek at his most absurd was an object of respect, not something that you could open your throat and laugh at. But that may have been the formality of the first night. I’ve found in playing to Japanese audiences that they actually are in general not as reserved as one would expect. I remember, when we toured with the English Shakespeare company doing the history plays, they were well prepared for the production. They’d studied the translations and were very emotional in their reaction – everything you might not traditionally expect. I hope that happened later in the run of my ‘Twelfth Night.’ The play ran successfully for a season in Tokyo and went on tour in Japan, and the reports that I got back were all encouraging. There has been talk of my going back and doing something else with them, but we haven’t managed to get that organized yet.


Brailow: Turning to your thinking about ‘Twelfth Night,’ can you say anything about how the play speaks to you as a director?


Pennington: I’m reminded of Yuri Lyubimov talking about ‘Hamlet’. He said, “There it sits, this thing, this play, and you circle it, and you come in on it from different angles, and it will be there afterwards anyway, whatever you do.” It’s not that you approach it timidly or with exaggerated respect, but there its life is, like a great amoeba. It will change shape every time you look at it, and, similarly, it will change shape every time you do it as a director. What I know about the play, and it certainly isn’t everything, is that it was, after all, Shakespeare's last comedy, in the classic sense of that word. The last of the series of plays that include ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Much Ado’. And depending on how you view your chronology, it’s more or less contemporary with ‘Hamlet’. Thereafter things got much more complex in Shakespearean comedy.


I do know that the play is only just comedy, that every character has complexity and is absolutely real and rooted in everyday reality. Which is why English people sometimes refer to ‘Twelfth Night’ as his most Chekhovian play, though it’s really a misnomer. Now, Shakespeare doesn’t need to be justified by being called Chekhovian, but I know what they mean. There is the same teetering between tragedy and comedy that’s absolutely a part of the tissue of Chekhov’s writing as well. And the difficulty, in my experience, is getting the comedy to jump out at the right time. If you deal with the opening of the play, with Olivia’s household in particular, you have to strike comedy out of it even though this is a house in deep mourning. And you must not underestimate the extent of Olivia’s mourning or the tragedy she has survived.


It’s also difficult from the other Shakespearean comedies insofar as the real emotional force at the end is not so much in the resolution into marriage, which was the traditional Shakespearean way of resolving a comedy, but actually in the reunion of a lost brother and sister. Twin brother and sister indeed! The reunion is, in my view, much more significant than the rather perfunctory marital pairings off that happen at the end of the play. So I do think it stands apart from what preceded it in Shakespearean comedy and occupies its own place on the earth.


It’s range is certainly a remarkable thing. On the one hand, Shakespeare builds a structure that is extremely detailed and realistic (Olivia’s household), and, on the other hand, he creates a magic world in which people come out of the sea and rediscover each other. The cat’s cradle that binds the two is the erratic factor of sexual desire that entangles people from both worlds.


Like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘Twelfth Night’ is also an ensemble play. Few Shakespeares have more than two really good leading parts in them, but both ‘Dream’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ are very much company plays. And there’s a balancing act involved in that as well. I can’t really say what it means to me as a 1995 man; it seems to me to be always changing, according to where you look at it, how you look at it. It’s a play you can do with a company you don’t even know very well so long as they’re strong enough. You find that out of the workshop comes something which forms itself. Maybe more than with a’ Hamlet’ or a ‘Lear’ or an ‘Othello’, this is a play that you need to go into without too many preconceptions. Just with a strong group of actors and with a sensitivity to the modulations of the text.


Brailow: Would you say, then, that in general you think of the meaning of the plays as relatively open-ended, as discovery that goes on within a particular company at a particular moment?


Pennington: To quite an extent, yes. I think it’s easy to make up your mind about what Shakespeare means and form your theory. It’s quite a comforting thing to be able to do so. But the play always jumps out of your hands if you do that, whatever it is. The moment you take a narrow decision about these plays, it’s contradicted by something else. Now, that’s not just an excuse for never getting the play quite right. It’s a way of saying that you just don’t know. I do think the plays are workshop plays in that way. It very much depends on human raw material that you’re dealing with, whether it be Japanese or English or American. Much more will come out of the rehearsal process. All I can claim to be is sensitive to the currents of the play, and, as I’ve said, I know that ‘Twelfth Night’ involves a balance between tragedy and comedy. We’ll have to see what comes out of the actors trying to relate to it.


Brailow: Do you have any thoughts about how Viola’s disguising herself as a man and the gender ambiguity implied by boy actors translate now?


Pennington: In a way, it’s the most difficult thing to translate, because you can’t really find a parallel for it. You can understand that she goes into service, and, once she’s in that role of Cesario with Orsino, then somehow modern audiences don’t have much difficulty. What is difficult is the disguising of herself as a man. Of course, you can say that in order to survive she has to compete in a man’s world, but that’s a particular political tilt on the play. Boy actors inhabit a world we’re completely shut out from, even though we make occasional attempts to get back into it. There was an all-male ‘As You Like It’, for instance that was very successful, but those are adult male actors. In Kabuki, the actor playing the woman is a grown-up male, not a boy actor. In the Mousetrap play in ‘Hamlet’, the Queen is commonly played by a boy or a very young actor: then you get somewhere close to it. But, by and large, we’re truly excluded from whatever the erotic charge might have been in the Elizabethan theatre.


I can’t claim to have found a chiming parallel to the cross-dressing in ‘Twelfth Night’. All I can offer is the possibility hinted at by Viola at one point later on, when it’s as if she wanted to become her brother. She says, “I my brother know yet living in my glass.” There’s something meaningful in that, and you can catch it. Because the loss of the brother is obviously devastating for her, she dresses like him, pretends to be him. There’s an emotional compulsion to identify with someone who’s lost, someone whom she misses. That can be quite a strong thing for Viola to play.


Brailow: Do you find the rough treatment of Malvolio problematic?


Pennington: Even as far back as the letter scene, which is a great comic tour de force, one must never forget that this is a man being eavesdropped on in his most private moments. He nurses this feeling about Olivia, which is perhaps an unattractive and slightly fetid feeling, but nevertheless it is real enough to him. And the rhapsody that enters into him when he thinks mistakenly that she loves him is not so very far from Romeo; it’s just expressed through his rather peculiar and bureaucratic style. Something very cruel is being done to him. It’s like looking through someone’s bathroom window. So, even there, the comedy’s absolutely on a knife edge, it seems to me. And from that point on, while enjoying his discomfiture, you increasingly begin to wonder what he’s done to deserve it. Of course, he’s been insufferable in that household. Of course, he’s tried to stop the cakes and ale. Of course, he’s engaged in a search for power within the structure of Olivia’s house. But he’s not killed anybody. He’s not committed any fantastic crime. Finally, of course he’s tormented by Feste playing Sir Topas in the prison, which is genuine cruelty. His exit line is a real chiller at the end of the play. It’s always very cruel and deeply complicated, Shakespearean comedy – it’s never blithe comedy – and Malvolio’s an absolute tragic case in point.


On the other hand, he would have been an ominous figure to the Elizabethans: the new Puritan. We’ve lost the charge of that and tend to get only the comedy. In the ESC production, I actually had Malvolio come back at the end and close the theatre. This may have had to do with my own preoccupation at the time about attitudes to the theatre in Britain, so I may have been slightly biased in putting that in, but I think there was Shakespearean truth in it. We have our own puritans, or lay-puritans. They’re the people who would close the theatres. They are the forces that would stop us doing what we do, and they have to be identified.


Brailow: How does Feste fit into your sense of the play as hovering between tragedy and comedy?


Pennington: Feste doesn’t say anything terribly funny. He says a lot of accurate and true things that make you laugh because of their perception. But there aren’t a lot of jokes. It’s interesting that Feste plays no part in the shaming of Malvolio through the letter scene, that most obviously comic set-up of the play. He seems to exist to the side, until he comes in and takes his own particular revenge on Malvolio, who has called him a barren rascal at the beginning. This is the particular savagery of the entertainer’s revenge on his critic, you know. It’s a personal thing, and I have some sympathy with it!


Brailow: He has the last word in the play. It seems to me that a lot of productions in recent decades have milked that last moment for its tragic and melancholic aspects.


Pennington: There was a phase here, you know, when Feste was played not unlike the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Yeoman of the Guard’, Jack Point, the broken-hearted jester who dies on the steps at the very last moment – “I have a song to sing, oh.” That’s not right, either. Feste’s a tough-minded fellow, a realist and a working man; he takes tremendous risks by using his jester’s license. He’s not a melancholic, whey-faced creature, but a very pungent commentator. And his last song coincides with a convention in Shakespeare that is, of course, very common: the performer almost putting down the cap for the audience’s tips. So Feste is saying, “Remember us on the way out, and come back tomorrow.” How you pitch the song is really experimental. You just have to feel it and see how it goes. You could put a very grim tilt at the end of the play, but in the end it may be that ‘Twelfth Night’ is a romantic comedy. All these things have to balance up, and it’s in the doing of it that you achieve the balance.


Brailow: How does your training and large experience as an actor of Shakespeare affect your approach as a director?


Pennington: I don’t direct very often, in fact, but the advantage I have, having done the play twice before, is that I know how the engine works, or can work, or what the various options within it are. I probably know what the compression ratio is by now. Also, I just know when the actors are in trouble, because I can feel it symbolically. I may know that the problem is more practical that metaphysical. I may know that it’s a matter of breathing or a modulation of tone, rather than something more dismaying. A surprising number of directors don’t know that. Of course, you have to be careful not to give twelve of your own performances. But I know how Shakespeare works his key changes. I may be completely wrong about all of them, but I have thirty years on it, and I’ve developed an ear that you can only get by playing these plays over and over again.


Brailow: Is there anything else you would want to say about the Shakespeare Repertory production?


Pennington: It’s not going to be traditional dress, and I’m determined that it’s not going to be anything resembling as imported English production. That’s not what I’m up to. I’m interested in finding out how these actors work, what their associations are, and what their responses to the play are; I want to help them towards something further, as the privileged outsider. So I’m giving myself to the experience in quite an open way.



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