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An ambitious programme for the Festival Theatre

Chichester Observer, 21st January 1988

Michael Pennington’s illustrious career took a dramatic new turn last year when he took a giant leap in the dark and founded the English Shakespeare Company with director Michael Bogdanov.

For more than a decade he had been thrilling audiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre as Hamlet, Strider in ‘Strider: the Story of a Horse’, and the like.

Slowly, but surely the conviction grew that he needed to spread his wings – to exercise more artistic control over his work. He described it as “being more bossy!”

So the English Shakespeare Company was born – committed to taking top quality Shakespeare productions to the provinces and the international stage.

From the start they thought big. “We never wanted to send out ‘Twelfth Night’ on its own – we wanted to make much more of a stir than that,” he said with a grin.

He felt mingled pride, astonishment, relief, and delight when the company’s first productions – ‘Henry IV Parts I and II’ and ‘Henry V’ – played to enthusiastic critical acclaim at home and abroad.

“At the end of last season I felt we had conjured something out of the air and put something back into the English touring scene,” he said modestly.

From January 29th to February 13th the company will be making a return visit to Chichester Festival Theatre with an even more ambitious programme.

They will be staging Shakespeare’s whole cycle of seven history plays under the collective title ‘The Wars of the Roses’.

Michael is both joint artistic director and star. He plays Richard II, Prince Hal, Henry V, Old Mortimer, Jack Cade, and Buckingham, besides understudying several other parts.

For every actor is in every play, and all understudy each other’s roles – even the stars. Last season Michael got the chance to come on as Feeble and Wart between his Prince Hal scenes – well hidden under huge hats!

The mammoth project is exhausting. Michael said: “We were casting and preparing right up to the last rehearsal, so Michael Bogdanov and I limped into rehearsal.

“We did this on our feet – busked it. I didn’t have time to prepare for the roles – I had to pick myself up as I went along. But fortunately I knew the plays rather well.

“What I like about our style of work is that it’s fast – more direct and populist than the RSC. You have to be inventive and quick-witted.

“It puts you back in touch with theatre’s roots. In Shakespeare’s day you would not have had long periods of rehearsal.

“We don’t get stuck in one mould because nothing is ever set. It’s always changing – all more fluid than people think.

“It’s a hard wheel to be on but it’s very exciting. I love putting on Shakespeare that gets people off their seats and yelling – Shakespeare that appeals to young people.”

There are hints that Michael, at 44, is beginning to see himself as an elder statesman of the theatre rather than the juvenile lead. His conversation keeps returning to the needs of the young.

He is particularly pleased the company has nurtured some younger actors and brought them from the obscurity of minor parts last tour to starring roles this season.

“We have brought forward young actors into leading roles who have heroic stature,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to see young people blossom and develop such as Andrew Jarvis (Richard III) and Paul Brennen (Henry VI).

“I don’t feel threatened by them – in fact I’m sharing Prince Hal with John Dougall.

“Now I’ve done quite a lot of what I set out to do and I’ve begun to worry about tradition and continuity. It’s rather satisfying to have a hand in creating the future.”

He set out, first and foremost, to play Shakespearean giants like Richard III. “When I became stage-struck as a kid it was Shakespeare I was taken it,” he explained.

He got his fill of classical roles working in the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1975 to 1981 and then with the National for more than a year.

But he dislikes being labelled a classical actor – or any sort of actor. Greedy for every kind of dramatic experience, he took a minor role in the ‘Star Wars’ sequel ‘Return of the Jedi’ immediately after playing Hamlet at Stratford.

“I did it to confound everybody,” he said with a sly smile. “I had one scene with Darth Vader – no more than twenty lines – and I got more fan mail from that in the States than from anything else I’ve done!”

“I’ve always wanted to be in the movies, but haven’t had much time or opportunity.”

Recently he filmed ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ which has yet to be shown in this country. For 15 hours a day he sweltered in a tweed suit in the Arizona desert. Temperatures soared to 120 degrees – but he insists he loved it.

He also relished his one-man show ‘Anton Chekhov, which was stage-managed by his son – now at art college. Michael’s marriage ended in divorce.

He has not confined himself to acting. Two visits to Russia resulted in his writing a book, ‘Rossya – A Journey Through Siberia’. And now he and Michael Bogdanov have taken the bold step of adapting the three ‘Henry VI’ plays into two.

He explained: “They are very scraggy and become much richer by being brought down to two.

“One of the excitements of rehearsing them was the feeling they were two completely new Shakespeare plays. The audience should feel the same when they see them.”

Though he’s totally committed to ‘The Wars of the Roses’ at present, he does not see the company as his life’s work.

The younger actors being brought forward will ensure continuity and he is ever eager for new challenges.

“This will be three years out of my life. There is a point when it becomes a ball and chain. I’d like to play lighter roles – some kind of comedy will be the next thing,” he promised.

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