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The Bard takes to the road

Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 5th February 1987, Phil Penfold

There was a tale, some years back, which reached my ears shortly after Mr Michael Pennington, the eminent and up-and-coming actor, had appeared as Hamlet with the RSC.

I had suggested, in a review, that the play was not all that it should be, and that Mr P. had not been best served by the direction. It was not, I said, one of the actor’s better encounters with a dramatic role.

The story was that Michael went up the proverbial wall at this notice, and had rather suggested to colleagues that I could take my opinions and shove them; preferably somewhere painful.

A few years having rolled by, and much theatrical to-ing and fro-ing having gone on, we now find Michael Pennington as joint artistic director of the (very) new English Shakespeare Company, and having severed his links – albeit perhaps temporarily – with the RSC.

Interviewing him in Chichester, where the company rested before setting out on a tour which has taken them to Northern Europe before alighting at the Sunderland Empire next Monday, neither of us made mention of Hamlet.

I didn’t want to start a wordy discussion (and possibly get thrashed within an inch of my unworthy life) and he had either (a) forgotten or (B) was too much of a gent to even bother about old ‘scores’. I suspect the latter to be more valid than the former.

Anyway, there we were, at the time of the last few weeks when everything was up to its chin in snow, Chichester being no exception and Michael was singing the praises of the theatre fan who struggles through all and sundry to make it to a performance. Houses had been a bit “down” he admitted, but not as much as you’d notice anything disastrous.

“In fact, I take my hat off to our ticket holders, who’ve made every effort they could to get to the theatre. We’ve held the curtain a few times to let latecomers have a chance of arriving, and that gesture has been well rewarded,” he says.

So why another company doing the rounds? Well, we in the North-East are lucky, it seems, in being well-served by the RSC.. “ But,” says Michael, “there is a huge need for a company doing large-scale classical work. We are touring 25 actors to theatres who very rarely see a big company doing our sort of play.

“The whole thing started when Michael Bogdanov and I went to the Arts Council and told them of our views and ideas. We expected to be sent away with a few nice words and a ‘we’ll think about it’ attitude.

“But instead, having offered ourselves and our services, they told us that if we felt we could fill the gap – and it was one that they themselves recognised – we were to go away and do it. I’m a bit astonished that it actually happened, a bit shaken but incredibly gratified. It is an expensive and elaborate operation to mount, but it seems to be worth it, and appears to be paying dividends.”

In response to the Arts Council’s initiative of challenge funding, the English Shakespeare Company has  attracted money from a number of sources for its first productions – Henry IV parts I & II and Henry V – and over two-thirds of the company’s funds come from the commercial sector.

A total of £125,000 comes from Ed and David Mirvish from the Old Vic Company (where the company will get a London run at the end of their tour), the Arts Council chipped in £100,000 for the current regional tour, and the Allied Irish Bank has given £65,000. The last, recognised under the Government’s business sponsorship scheme, prompted a further £25,000.

This means the ESC will get a tour and a London showing for nine months of the year. They are not, as yet, prepared to be a full-time year-round company.

“The title came about because we were looking at something that sounded good and solid and – well, trustworthy,” says Michael, “and we wanted to show that the main body of our work will be Shakespeare, although we will be looking at other English playwrights in the fullness of time – not always, we hope, the classics.

“Maybe it will be possible, before long, to go to a playwright and actually commission a new play. Think what opportunities, for example, a David Hare could see in working with 25 actors instead of his usual restrictions…”

I point out that ‘Richard II’, with the RSC, is playing in Newcastle at the same time that the ESC is at Sunderland. Pennington is not downhearted.” It is a pure coincidence and we’ll just have to see what happens,” he says. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be good support for all our efforts. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be a challenge to the RSC.

“It’s very interesting for m, playing the hard-nosed administrator – casting and budgeting is entirely new. I’ve only ever had to act before. Thus far the combination is good – I can see another side to things and begin to appreciate problems that I have hitherto not been aware of.

“I am not really a director and will not be taking charge of the plays in that sense. Neither will I always be in them – I hope not, anyway. I don’t want to hog all the best parts. And bear in mind that some of the ‘names’ in the cast will be understudying, when they’re available (I do too!) and some of the other actors will be getting gilt-edges opportunities they wouldn’t get elsewhere.

“After all, the opportunities to be a classical actor are  not as many as you would at first think. There are lots of actors in work who would still like to join us in the sort of thing we are doing or intend to do. They could maybe get better money elsewhere, but to be part of a large company in a repertoire of classic plays doesn’t happen all that often.”

I say that playing in three productions on one day (as they do when the history of Henry and his son unrolls) must knock the stuffing out of him – let alone the rest of the company.

“I’m as lazy as hell, really,” he admits, “but I am an enthusiast. Somehow I get out there and do it. I have, it is true, some 3,000 lines to memorise, something that I didn’t QUITE appreciate when I undertook the part. But then there are something like 220 parts in the three plays – not all of them speaking, of course – and that’s quite a challenge.”

Michael is joined by – among others – John Woodvine and Gareth Thomas in the company, and Bogdanov’s work will be familiar to thousands of the regions theatre-goers, for not only has much of his work been on tour, but he was also, for some time, a resident director of the (then) University Theatre.

“There is something in the English character which rises to a challenge,” says Michael, “whether it’s braving the appalling weather or sitting through a whole day’s theatre. The bubble underneath has been terrifying – very moving. And the days when we do the trio in sequence have been the most popular bookings so far.

“We have Hull, Leeds, Oxford, Manchester and Birmingham to come,” he says. And Sunderland, I add.

“AND Sunderland”, says Michael Pennington confidently.

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