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Michael Pennington on Acting and Directing Shakespeare


Shakespeare Bulletin, Summer 1997, An Interview with Margaret A Vannell


Michael Pennington is no stranger to the Shakespearean community. He is a respected actor, director, and author. He is also known as the co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov. Apart from the ESC’s two visits to Chicago International Festival in 1988 and 1992, Pennington is perhaps best known to American audiences as a guest director of ‘Twelfth Night’ for the Shakespeare Repertory Company of Chicago (1996) and his most recent book, ‘Hamlet – A User’s Guide’ (London: Hern, 1995). His career has spanned radio, television, films, and the theatre the world over. Through it all, his love of the spoken word and the craft of acting has only deepened. He spoke to us about his life in the theatre.


MAV: There is an ongoing debate about university-based vs. drama school preparation for the theatre. What is your experience?


MP: I graduated from Cambridge in 1964 with a degree in English. Then, as now, University theatre was extremely busy; it remains a good training as an alternative to theatre school. I certainly found it so because we were able to train ourselves autonomously. We had our own societies. We ran a theatre. I think we put on some thirty or thirty-five shows in three years. It was like a professional little group. That is an experience that is obviously not available to students at drama school. It was certainly a good alternative.


We are facing a kind of crisis in the theatre today. Acting is a craft and, as such, should be served by a proper program of apprenticeship or training – just as any other industry should. And that is a point that we have been unable to establish with governments and government agencies, who claim to appreciate the achievements of British theatre but, in practice, regard us still as rather frivolous people. They see us as people who want to train for our work but who are not really deserving of bursaries or grants to do it. As a symptom of that, like anybody who is established in an industry, I get lots of letters from students who find that they can secure places in accredited drama schools but can’t afford to pay the fees. They go, as they always have been taught, to their local authorities; in the old days, you could expect a grant. Now they find that the authorities have a limited budget, and they can’t get a grant. So, the next thing they have to do is write begging letters. I must say that are auditioning twice. They audition for the drama school, and then they audition to see who can write the best begging letter.


Of course, it would be impossible for me to subsidize all the people who write or in a sense to subsidize any of them. You really have no notion about whom you are subsidizing and whether they have a chance of succeeding or not, the whole question of arts training in this country is a vexing one. It is very difficult to persuade the people who should be representing our interests in Parliament. It we are going to continue to be proud of what we do in the English theatre, then those same politicians who want to have good evenings in the theatre for the rest of their lives are going to have to take care of those coming up in the training ground. Otherwise, there will be decline in the standards. No matter what the industry, a certain kind of technical training or experience is still an investment in the future.


MAV: How do you approach a text?


MP: To some extent, it depends on the director or the style I am working with. I was brought up on Shakespeare, so I fortunately have a good working knowledge of all the plays, and that is completely different from someone who might come to the material fresh. It is difficult to generalize how you approach a text. You look for the sense of it. You explore it as you would a contemporary text. Either at the same time or possibly in a secondary stage, you begin to appreciate, as you would a piece in Mozart, the structure and the form from the outside. For example, why he’s placed one word at the end of a line rather than in the middle of the line. But, of course, as with Mozart, you find very quickly that the more you pay attention to Shakespeare’s form, the more certain matters of interpretation become clear to you. The clues are actually all in the sequence of the words on the page and the order Shakespeare has chosen to put them in.


MAV: What was it like directing in America?


MP: I work fortunate to work in a great theatre city. Barbara Gaines founded her Shakespeare Repertory Company about ten years ago. Gaines and her people are clearly doing remarkable work. Not least because she is presenting a lot of the little known plays of Shakespeare, plays that we are nervous about doing over here – for example, ‘Timon of Athens’, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, and ‘King John’. That’s a brave commitment. Like many directors of companies, she doesn’t have a permanent troupe, but she has a pool of actors that she can draw on again and again. So there is a kind of nucleus of an ensemble.


As for working with the actors, they had an expectation of me, and I had an expectation of them. They had the expectation that I would perhaps be this rather pedantic teacher of the verse form. I think they found that I was as concerned about establishing the comedy business in ‘Twelfth Night’ and make people laugh as any vaudevillian. In a way, I was expecting what, in fact, I did find – that most of the actors had easy access to their emotions. They were very willing to laugh, cry, or do whatever was necessary – easily and without a lot of coaxing. To generalize, the challenge was to harness the emotion and give it a form that corresponded to the form of Shakespeare’s writing. That meant paying attention to the rhythm, flow, the tension and release of the verse as well as to the structure of the whole sequence of scenes.


It was a gift for a director, because without the actors’ emotional reservoir and their willingness to take risks and expose themselves emotionally, it would have been hard to get the work on. I enjoyed the experience immensely. I’ve directed ‘Twelfth Night’ now three times, once in England, once in Japan, and once in America, and the last was by far the best.


MAV: Why is building an ensemble important?


MP: It has become an ideal that we take for granted here. When I say an ensemble, I don’t necessarily mean the same group of people and only that group of people who work together for a year or even five years at a time. In the early sixties here, we heard about the Russian ensembles, and we became excited about the idea. Peter Hall tried it in Stratford. He put everyone under three year contracts, and all the plays were cast from that group. Pretty soon, market forces started operating, and maybe a director wanted to bring in somebody new for a particular part. That might cause some resentment among the group. So the whole idea of committing yourself to a group is something that is slightly at odds with the open-market tradition in the English industry.


The RSC has traditionally had a group of sixty or seventy actors to be drawn on, but not all the time and not for every play. Peter Hall is trying to establish that kind of environment again here at the Old Vic. There really are two reasons. There is something for the audience in watching the same actor play three parts in a week: it is an incidental pleasure. And it has always been so. We have always had jokes about the actor whose landlady comes to see him every week, and she is pleased because he is always the same in every play he does. There is a whole vocabulary of jokes, but there is something that appeals to audiences about it. From the actor’s point of view, it means that a good actor does get to play, say, the lead in ‘Othello’ but that, to do so, he has to play a small part in another play. What you get is very good actors even in the small parts. You enjoy a depth of quality in a company, which is extremely valuable for any theatre group. I personally don’t think it is good for the same people to play together exclusively, all the time. I think they begin to turn inwards. I suppose that makes me the typical Englishman. I think the camaraderie is good, but I also think the market forces need to keep breaking up a company from time to time.


MAV: The English Shakespeare Company is still alive and well. What are they doing now?


MP: I’ll tell you what’s happened. We started in 1985. I resigned from the directorship, which I shared with Michael Bogdanov, in 1992. There was at that time a brief hiatus. He kept the company going from 1993 until now. It has done primarily educational work, which is something that had grown during the previous seven years of the company’s life. And it is as vital as anything we did. We are proud of our work going into primary and secondary schools and inspiring and enlightening kids who had never really had any dealings with Shakespeare or who were already bored with the way Shakespeare was taught. We got them to perform the plays and work with the text, the kind of work you would expect us to do. Recently, Michael to his great credit, has mounted the company again as a touring operation. The company is currently on the road doing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and an adaptation of ‘Beowulf.’ So we are waiting to see how that goes. I am now a just a member of the board, so I have no direct artistic input, but the company still exists and thrives in its work.


MAV: The first years of the ESC were trying.


MP: The first year was difficult because we were so new, and I suppose wiser counsels would have said you must wait twelve months or so until you have more grant money in place and you are fully organized. But we weren’t of a temperament to do so. The first three years were the most successfully artistic we had. People got very excited about the cycle of history plays we were doing. The whole thing was an administrative nightmare. We worried whether we could pay the actors at the end of the week. Later on, we did become a little more established and more secure financially. I’m not sure the work was any better, but, from the start, we wanted to take risks and fly by the seat of our pants, so to speak. It was tremendously rewarding artistically.


MAV: What about Equity?


MP: Equity did give us a bit of a hard time in the first year. We were doing an unusual thing. We did nine performances a week, and we had the trilogy days when we did the whole cycle of history plays. So, there were a lot of technical problems. We had to decide how to manage appropriate breaks between performances, how the overtime was to be administered. Now companies like the RSC and the National do this type of work all the time. But they have established their own separate contracts with Equity, and it had taken years to do it. We were new. We were working under bits and pieces of various contracts cobbled together. We hadn’t had time to negotiate the details, and there was some friction.


MAV: Were you a threat to the RSC and the National?


MP: Well, we should have been. We were a reproach to them. They had abandoned large-scale touring of the classics. So we were actually flinging the gauntlet at them. Five years later, they took up the gauntlet and started larger scaled national tours again. Of course, at a certain level, we can’t compete with them. They always had first call on the money, and they got it.


MAV: Let’s talk about nerves.


MP: Opening nights are wonderful but trying. It is difficult for an actor to do his best on an opening night, because a lot of pressure comes down. I deal less well with it as years go by. You must instruct yourself to get through it. Like Laurence Olivier’s comment: “Nerves are a luxury you can’t afford.” He knew that nerves actually close a performer. It really is just a point of moral instruction to your self. Nerves are a point of ego really – you just have to get on with the play and serve the story. Opening nights vary, but it’s unusual for an opening to be the best performance. Sometimes, the opening has the adrenalin, but the rhythm of the play usually hasn’t happened yet.


MAV: Reviews?


MP: We all read reviews, maybe not at the time, but eventually. Bad notices? Well, you hope there are good ones to go along with it. In any case, you have to keep the faith in yourself going. It is also stupid to turn your back on criticism, to say these people don’t know anything. I have learned things from bad reviews. Maybe they were right. Maybe, when they said you missed the character, you should think about the criticism. But it is difficult not to be defensive.


MAV: What about Harley Granville-Barker?


MP: Granville-Barker was way ahead of his time. When he looked at stage practice in the early part of this century, he saw it was marked by excessive spectacle and unbelievable styles of acting. His mission, if you will, was to change all that and put the text foremost, and he was very successful. Granville-Barker abandoned the academicism of building the Globe theatre again, but he perceived how the text could be used, and he seemed to be recapturing something of what Shakespeare’s intention was. His prefaces are about the only text the practitioner wants to refer to. Academic critics are useful; but, quite honestly, you don’t have a lot of time to study them as you are preparing for a play. Granville-Barker was a practitioner. He understood the nuts and bolts of the plays in performance. He is quite useful to an actor or director today. The last preface he wrote was in 1947, which was a long time ago. I am not necessarily saying it should be me, but someone should be writing about these plays practically and not just theoretically.


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