Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

Heady challenge of touring on the grand scale

The Times, 18th September 1986

Private enterprise in Britain’s theatre took an imposing step forward with yesterday’s announcement of the founding of the English Shakespeare Company: Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington talk to Andrew Rissik about their collaboration in the new venture.

It is a mark of this country’s changing theatrical climate that actors and directors of established ability seem these days to be seeking freedom from the huge organizations which they have helped to create.

Sir Anthony Quayle, who ran Stratford in the Fifties, now leads a touring company called Compass, whose speciality is high-standard productions of the classics. John Dexter, once a corner stone of Sir Laurence Olivier’s regime at the National, has recently joined forces with the veteran impresario Eddie Kulukundis to form the New Theatre Company and stage ‘The Cocktail Party’. Yesterday the director Michael Bogdanov and the actor Michael Pennington announced the establishment of their English Shakespeare Company, which will take ‘Henry IV Parts I & II’ and ‘Henry V’ to the Old Vic early next year after a four-and-a-half-month tour of 11 of our leading repertory theatres. Bogdanov directs and Pennington plays Hal.

Both of them have done much of their most rewarding work with the big, subsidized companies. Pennington played Hamlet at the end of a seven-year career at Stratford, before joining the National in 1984 to take leading roles in ‘Venice Preserv’d and ‘Strider – The Story of a Horse’, Bogdanov directed ‘Strider’, has been an associate director at the NT since 1980 and won the SWET award in 1979 for his RSC ‘Taming of the Shrew’.

He first directed Pennington at Stratford in 1980, when the actor played the working-class Dublin poet Donal Davoren in Bogdanov’s flinty and muscular production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’. Since then they have talked often of consolidating their partnership more formally.

They recently considered offering themselves as a team to Sir Peter Hall, but the English Shakespeare Company emerged first, the results of a series of meetings with the Arts Council and the Mirvishs at the Old Vic. To some extent the choices have been made for them, determined by the wishes of their backers, who seem to have been excited by the prospect of two experienced Shakespearians able and willing to take large-scale productions on tour.

Both lay claim to long-nurtured ambitions to do the Henry plays, and the scale of the project, with all its difficulties, appear to offer them an adrenalin-drawing combination of fear and excitement. “To rehearse three plays in nine weeks must register as the balmiest repertory schedule of the year”. Pennington says, with a faintly combative smile. “One of my interests is to see if this can be done with a minimum of bureaucracy. Everyone’s in all three plays, everyone’s playing as cast, everyone’s understudy. That’s a familiar attitude to running an ensemble, but in 20 years I’ve seen it more talked about than practised.”

“We regard this not as a radical breakaway project, but as a rather conventional one”, Bogdanov adds. “We want a company that isn’t tied to buildings – something like the large-scale experimental groups that exist in Europe.”

They acknowledge that their partnership may seem a curious one. It is easy to characterize Pennington as a bookish, sweet-spoken classicist, and Bogdanov – who directed Howard Brenton’s scandalously received ‘The Romans in Britain’ – as a racy and sharp-spoken iconoclast. But, Bogdanov emphasises, “I think, looking at the way we’ve developed over the last few years – me wanting to break with the more traditional forms of theatre, and Michael breaking away brilliantly and radically from the RSC with Yuri Lyubimov’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ – there’s more in common than might appear.”

“When I first worked with Michael on ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ I thought we’d all be riding around on monocycles”, says Pennington. “Instead, I found he challenged me on every single naturalistic detail of my performance.” Bogdanov replies:  “What I saw during those rehearsals was an actor battling to come to grips with a part he wasn’t necessarily designed for. Struggling with the social background and the accent. That strength and determination to get it right was what impressed me.”

Both men may be undervalued in their different ways. Pennington’s work has sometimes seemed too reverent, while Bogdanov has often been thought too crude, an energetically opinionated director who lacks subtlety. At his best, though, he has flair and a visual panache rare in the English theatre. At the National, his ‘Hiawatha’ and his ‘Ancient Mariner’ were wonderful pieces of theatrical story-telling, stark, bold and charged with the heady magic of imagined words. Pennington, too, has a capacity for the haunted and the fantastic. It dominated his skeletal Raskolnikov, his half-mad politician in Brenton’s ‘Thirteenth Night’ and his persecuted and slow-moving horse, Strider.

It is easy to see why they want to tackle the ‘Henry’ plays. The epic flux of society, the picturesque sprawl of nation in change, is Shakespeare at his most searchingly political. And Harry Monmouth, the layabout prince who becomes the Warrior King, is the longest and most complex role in the canon. Pennington speaks for both of them when he says simply, “In the end I think we just share a terror of boredom”.

The English Shakespeare tour begins at Plymouth (Theatre Royal, November 3rd - 15th) and Cardiff (New Theatre, November 17th-22nd).

Return to The Henry Trilogy Articles