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

Star Wars, Rose wars

China Morning Post, 14th January 1988, Helen Wong

Michael Pennington has a distinguished reputation for his work in English theatre and television, but it took a bit part in the hugely grossing ‘Star Wars’ trilogy to start the fan mail pouring in.

He had just played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, recalls the silver-haired actor and co-artistic director of the English Shakespeare Company, when he was approached to play the nervous Imperial Army corporal Moff Jerrod, in the final part of the ‘Star Wars’ epic, ‘Return of the Jedi’.

“When you play Hamlet many people ask you serious questions like ‘What are you going to do next? What is your next great challenge?. These questions always made me laugh because an actor does what presents itself at the time – no one takes these decisions really very consciously.

“It just happened that I was asked to do it after playing Hamlet so I did it, for fun.

“It was a very small part with Darth Vader, very short scenes, but I get more fan mail from that – from kids in America in particular – than for anything that I’ve ever done in the theatre ever.”

There is a touch of amazement in Pennington’s voice at the reaching power of film. It’s not as though he’s been idle during his years of acting. His lengthy theatre credits reveal a litany of leading classic roles from Shakespeare to Chekhov. His television work spans a number of quality one-off plays, while he has been a member of Britain’s leading national companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

Now, he and co-founder Michael Bogdanov jointly run the two-year-old ESC, one of the few large scale touring companies taking classical drama to English provincial theatres and overseas.

The 25-member company, in Hong Kong for this year’s Arts Festival, has embarked on an exhausting two-year-venture – taking Shakespeare’s War of the Roses cycle to arts festivals around the world. The complete cycle was last staged 20 years ago in the playwright’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Under the direction of Bogdanov, this seven play series challenges the traditional approach to Shakespeare and brings his work into the 20th century, where costumes transform actors into punks and paratroopers.

“My opinion now about how to present Shakespeare is rather different than what it was when I was at the RSC. That experience was valuable to me, but that was six or seven years ago,” says Pennington, who is portraying the demanding roles of Richard II, Prince Hal, Henry V, Edmund Mortimer and Jack Cade for the RSC.

“My thinking has changed a lot since then, and I think now, as Michael does, that we have to find a way to make Shakespeare more accessible, especially to younger audiences. That’s involved me in certain attitudes that are not particularly those of the RSC.

“You have to review your work and change continuously, the worst thing is to stand still. The business of how to get Shakespeare across is a lifelong interest, and you’ve got to change your attitude to it, change your philosophy many times.”

The fascination with Shakespeare is like a drug for Pennington – “a life-long obsession with remissions”. It started at the age of 11, after seeing a fiery performance of ‘Macbeth’, and by 21, he had seen just about every Shakespeare play written.

“Like a good junkie I also have an aversion therapy. There are years and years when I don’t touch Shakespeare at all, because it’s somewhat oppressive, but the plays are simply the greatest plays ever written – together with the plays of Chekhov and one or two others.”

Curiously, he doesn’t have any particular theatre influences. His greatest inspiration is legendary blues singer Billie Holliday, for her spontaneity and improvisation, but he is quick to name his favourite screen actors as Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando.

“I saw Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’ recently on television, and the magnetism and imaginative detail of the performance and the concentration of thought…it was really extraordinary, a great performance. It must be 30 years since it was made and it hasn’t dated, his performace is as powerful now as it was then.”

At 44, there is not much more he wants in terms of career.

“I’ve played a lot of major Shakespeare roles that I’ve always wanted to do, I’m running my own company, I’m an actor manager, I’ve realised certain obvious ambitions.

“The only ambitions I’m left with really are personal ones – for a long life and contentment, and all those good things.

“In terms of theatre I think it’s a good idea to throw away ambition, because it only causes you unhappiness. You will always have some defeats and failures in your career, and if you’re terribly ambitious you get terribly disappointed.

“At the moment I’m very philosophical about things. You have to be calm. You can get very upset if you become ambitious or competitive, very frustrated.

“An actor’s life is a hard one. It’s hard enough to do the work without worrying about your career very much, and to earn a living.”

His acting philosophy?

“Just get it right, tell the truth, get it right. Entertain people.”

Return to The Wars of The Roses Articles