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Marathon Man

Sunday Observer Magazine 15th March 1987

Nine hours of Shakespeare’s histories in one day? In Hull? Starting at 10.30am? The theatre manager isn’t convinced; tickets are printed setting noon Saturday as kick-off time, committing the 25 actors to being on stage for nine out of 11 consecutive hours. Now it’s their turn to be unconvinced. Swords are unsheathed, and a compromise is reached: 11.30am.

All-day Shakespeare has been staged before – but never as part of a gruelling eight-month tour taking in 17 cities, from Cardiff to Cologne, Mannheim to Manchester. Shouldering the burden of this audacious enterprise is Michael Pennington, a 43-year-old refugee from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National theatre who set up the English Shakespeare Company last autumn with director Michael Bogdanov. “We’d got to the male menopause stage where we wanted to make a radical change from the big companies,” he says. Already, one critic has proclaimed, the new company is ‘a daring and serious threat’ to the National and the RSC.

It looks a serious threat to Pennington’s health, too. Touring, he says is a combination of curry hangovers, unpacked suitcases and trying to get through ‘Anna Karenina’ for the eighth time. It’s also 10 three-hour shows a week: one each evening Monday to Friday, a matinee, an understudies rehearsal and the Saturday marathon.

Unable to face the Indian restaurant which lurks monopolistically behind every provincial theatre, Pennington often doesn’t eat properly after a Friday night performance. Then, anxious about oversleeping, he dozes fitfully until he awakened at 8am by “the call I’ve been waiting for all night” and starts Saturday “with a mind and body completely ill-equipped for 11 hours of strenuous activity”. During those 11 hours he transforms himself from the dissolute Prince Hal of ‘Henry IV Part I’ into the monarch in waiting of ‘Henry IV Part II’, then into the Action Man hero of ‘Henry V’.

In Hull, the company’s first stop after Paris, many theatregoers unsure of their stamina, have left it until Saturday morning to buy tickets for the marathon - £10 for all three plays, compared with £24 in the Old Vic next Saturday. “Meeting the audience in the morning isn’t the same as in the evening,” says Pennington. “It’s more of a social event. You are all going to go through Dunkirk together, you know there’ll be no let-up in the campaign until 11 in the evening.”

As Hal and Hotspur rehearse some tricky swordplay in the empty theatre, a breadman heaves several dozen loaves of Hovis through the foyer to the snack-bar. Parties begin to meet up: ‘This is Judy and this is Shirl’s mum, Betty.’ Last cigarettes are smoked.

“When I stagger on stage in Act 1, I’m mentally head-counting, praying all 25 of us have arrived,” says Pennington. “Some of our venues’ like Bath, are prone to traffic jams on a Saturday morning. It’s a moment of relative calm when we start the play.”

As the house lights dim, Patrick O’Connell, once the J.R. figure in BBC TV’s ‘The Brothers’, strides on clad more like Gladstone than a conventional Henry IV: “So shaken are we, so wan with care…” The marathon has begun.

Provincial audiences haven’t minded Bogdanov’s matching costume to character so that the Prince appears in jeans or as a paratrooper, Gadshill as a peacock-haired punk, and Pistol as a Rambo look-alike. But they do like the lines to be well spoken, which they are. Houses have varied between two-thirds full and sell-outs – except at Chichester, which the company hit at the height of January’s blizzards. “Never has so much enthusiasm been expressed by so few to so many,” says Pennington.

By 2.35pm in Hull, Hal has roistered with John Woodvine’s seigniorial Falstaff in the Boar’s Head Tavern, the King has agonised over his unthrifty son, and Henry Percy’s rebellion has been put down. For the audience, the logistics are as daunting as those the rebels faced on the battlefield at Shrewsbury. It’s too late to eat at the nearest pub, The English Gentleman. With 75 minutes to go before Part 2, can they make it to Mario’s Theatre Restaurant in Albion Street? Or the Shish Mahal International? Or will a coffee and KitKat in the foyer have to suffice?

Pennington settles down in his dressing room with steak and chips. “Any carbohydrate will do,” he says. “What I need is fuel, as much as I can eat. I’ll even have black pudding for breakfast, which I detest. A lot of this kind of acting is a bargain with yourself. There’s an element of experimenting with your own nervous system, seeing how far you can go with it. It’s quite exciting. I suppose athletes do the same thing.”

He has struck such bargains before. Three years ago, to play Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, he lost three stone. By contrast, turning his brain into a Shakespearean cassette recorder is easy. “I have about 2,000 lines in the three Henry’s, but I just hit the appropriate button for each play. I’d be interested to know how much it’s possible to keep in your brain.”

It was at the Old Vic that Pennington caught the acting bug when, aged 11, he saw Paul Rogers in ‘Macbeth’. “In a way,” he says, “you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture some of the excitement.” At Marlborough he landed all the emotional parts in school plays “because English public schoolboys don’t like doing that sort of thing”. He became a precocious Shakespearean. “Remember the old ‘Double Your Money’ quiz show on television? There was a fellow who came on every week to answer questions on Shakespeare. I watched every programme. When he got to the $32,000, he didn’t know the answer. I did. I was 14 and I could have made my fortune.”

At 3.57pm the three-minute call comes for ‘Henry IV Part 2’. ‘If Henry’s not finished his dinner yet, there’s no need to hurry,’ one munching theatregoer says to his wife.

Hal is off-stage for nearly 90 minutes in the middle of ‘Henry IV, Part 2’, usually giving Pennington a chance to catch up with administrative work. But today, because an actor is ill, he also goes on as Francis Feeble, the ladies’ tailor press-ganged by Falstaff. “Did you spot me?” he asks gleefully afterwards. “I haven’t understudied since the Sixties, but everyone understudies here.”

Although the ESC is no friendly democracy – Pennington and Bogdanov call the shots – it has put its faith in ensemble playing. “That’s what the RSC doesn’t do these days: maintain an ensemble,” says Pennington. “People used to stay with the RSC for three or four years and stars would be produced, like Ian Holm in the Sixties and Alan Howard in the Seventies. These days its companies change almost completely from year to year. That is where we come in: giving the public a chance to get to know a group of performers and watch them develop. We want to remain mobile and unbureaucratic, not having to produce product as the RSC is required to do by its charter, not having to put on another ‘As You Like It’ every three years.”

Certainly the ESC isn’t top-heavy. Its administrative staff totals four, including the two founders, and it operates out of a third-floor room in London’s Golden Square leased for a year from Pennington’s agent. Funding for the first tour came from the Arts Council, the Old Vic and the Allied Irish Bank of Ireland. Only after seeing the first performances did the British Council bankroll four venues in France and Germany.

By 7.10pm, in Hull’s New Theatre, the rest of the rebels have been defeated, Hal crowned King and Falstaff banished. There’s only 50-minutes break before ‘Henry V’. Pennington tucks into his next steak. It’s all beginning to feel like a flight to Bangkok with two touch-downs and six in-flight movies.

At 8pm, Chorus informs Hull’s packed 1000-seat theatre that all the youth of England are on fire. In a bold bid for contemporary relevance, Bogdanov has directed ‘Henry V’ as a post-Falklands adventure. The English troops march off to France roaring “Here we go, here we go, here we go”, King Hal brandishes an AR-15 rifle and Chorus strolls across the stage carrying a placard reading ‘Gotcha!’. Hull loves it.

By 11pm the end-of-week party is in full swing and the stage crew is dismantling the set and lights into nearly 1,000 pieces. At 12.45am Pennington, discovering that someone has smashed the headlamps of his Volkswagen Jetta, drives off lightless towards the Station Hotel. He is stopped by two policemen, who breathalyse him. What brings him to Hull, they ask him after he’s cleared. His answer surprises them. “What, in acting? A theatre player?”

By Sunday afternoon, he’s in the next venue, Sunderland, even closer to Newcastle upon Tyne where the RSC is putting on ‘Richard II’ (the monarch murdered by Henry IV). The local papers are calling it the Battle of the Bards.

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