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Bard Boy

Time Out, 18-25th March 1987, Jane Edwardes

When Michael Pennington appeared in Yuri Lyubimov’s expressionistic production of ‘Crime and Punishment’, he lost three stone in as many weeks in order to realise his own painterly image of Raskolnikov. He was so thin that enormous bruises appeared every time he bumped into the furniture. Dreaming of chocolate cake, he was secretly relieved when no West End transfer was forthcoming although he harangued the managements for their cowardice. To his annoyance, his skeletal appearance became an issue. There he was acting his heart out as Dostoevsky’s tortured anti-hero, and there we were wondering how long it was since he had a decent meal. Even now, six years later, he still looks in need of a large bowl of steam pudding.

The production of ‘Crime and Punishment’ was part of Pennington’s Russian phase when everything he appeared in seemed to be impregnated with Slavonic angst. Now, at the age of 43, he has returned to his first love and become joint artistic director of the English Shakespeare Company. His commitment to the Bard was sparked off by a visit to the Old Vic at the age of 11 to watch Paul Rogers in ‘Macbeth’. From then on he was hooked. At 15, he watched a contestant on ‘Double Your Money’ make it to £32,000 with Shakespeare as his topic and then walk out with 2s 6d in his pocket because he could not answer an obscure question from ‘Measure for Measure’. Pennington could have told him and answered all the other questions as well. He still goes dewey-eyed when he thinks what he could have done with £64,000 in 1958. After an intensive theatrical training and a degree fired by Benzedrine, it was inevitable that he would join the RSC, a six-year period that culminated in his performance as Hamlet in 1980.

Any actor who leaves the RSC after such a long service is liable to be labelled a classicist. Especially when you have, in RSC director John Barton’s words, ‘the intelligence, voice, sensitivity and sensibility for the classics.’ And, he might have added, the romantic good looks. So, many people were surprised when he and director Michael Bogdanov announced the formation of their new company and plans to tour the country with ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’ and ‘Henry V’.

If Pennington is the purist, Bogdanov is the showman, a director whose work often borders on gimmickry always in danger of alienating the older audiences in his desire to win over the new. With Bogdanov directing and Pennington playing Hal just how would the combination work? Would the sensitive verse speaker be sent to the breach in a Chieftain tank?

Five months on the road and Pennington is tired. The hazards of touring are legion – extreme fatigue, carry hangovers, drab hotels, the endless hunt for the nearest laundrette and an unpredictable welcome from the host theatre. When the 25-strong company arrived at the Apollo in Oxford, they were greeted with a banner draped over the front of the theatre emphatically proclaiming this week’s attraction as ‘Swan Lake’. Was Falstaff expected to pirouette on in a tutu? On the second day, the publicity department managed the Royal Shakespeare Company and it wasn’t until over halfway through the run that they finally got it right.

In a tour that has included full houses and an enthusiastic response throughout the North and in Cologne, Berlin and Paris, the Apollo has not proved to be one of the high spots. It is a barn made for storming, icily cold, with a carpet that has been beaten to death by the head bangers who usually occupy the auditorium. For Shakespeare, the audience is not so vast, ignored by the students and the academics who prefer to absorb him in cosy book-lined studies.

Given these forbidding circumstances, it was a tribute to the company that the small audience became so deeply involved in a performance of ‘Henry IV Part 2’. It is an ambitious trilogy to undertake. It is not even known for certain that Shakespeare intended to write a Part 2 when he began Part 1 and there are discrepancies between the two. ‘Henry V’ was probably written some three years later. Part 2 is less riotous play than its predecessor, presenting a panoramic view of English society as the chivalric values of Part 1 give way to a new, self-seeking ruthlessness. The scene shifts from the taverns of Eastcheap, to the machinations within the court. A state-of-the-nation play that might have been written by Howard Barker instead of Bill Shakespeare.

Through a weird and wonderful hotch-potch of costumes, Bogdanov brings one right up against the play’s modernity without adopting the straitjacket of any one particular period. Pistol rampages dressed as a Hell’s Angel; Doll Tearsheet is a leather-clad whore; the court sports frock coats; and the army runs the gamut from medieval armour to modern battle fatigues. It could be ghastly but in the hands of the actors who worry as much about the speaking of the language as about the anachronisms, the effect is both powerful and immediate.

Although Part 2 is dominated by John Woodvine’s eloquent Falstaff, brooding in the background is Michael Pennington’s Hal, a depressed, isolated figure struggling to come to terms with his impending kingship. This Hal has no consistent plan of action; his embrace of the Lord Chief Justice and the rejection of Falstaff are spontaneous gestures however inevitable. Pennington faces up to the less attractive aspects of Hal’s character and the result is both fascinating and unusual. But is Hal a complex figure?

“He’s as complex as your average adolescent,” says Pennington, “He can certainly live life to the full but he also has a very destructive streak in him. I think the boring way of doing the part is to state at the outset what he is going to do, namely that he is going to be with Falstaff and his mates up to a certain point and then he is going to come out like the sun from behind the clouds. I sympathise with him although in many ways he is a very unsympathetic character, because he can never be sure of any of his relationships even in the tavern when they cheer for him and laugh at his jokes.”

And what about ‘Henry V’, a play that is still dominated by the image of Olivier’s film? “If you sit in front of that film with a script open, you will see that Olivier cut everything out of it that reflects badly on Henry or on the English generally. Anything that is violent in Henry is omitted because the film was designed to boost the war effort. But obviously in any other decade, especially post-Falklands, the play and the character have got to be much more ambiguous than that. People will see what they want to see. We’ve had letters saying ‘How wonderful to see patriotic virtues extolled once more’ while other people have said ‘How dare you traduce our heroic tradition.’ But it is very subversive. Shakespeare was incapable of writing a simple play.”

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