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Cycling Shakespeare

Drama Magazine, 1st Quarter 1989

Michael Pennington, star actor and founder member of the English Shakespeare Company, discusses the company’s extraordinary world tour.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that things have happened so fast. Running the ESC is a sort of permanent emergency with split seconds of euphoria and I just had one such, looking down on the central Australian desert on one of our Sunday hops across the continent with ‘The Wars of the Roses’ – forty four of us in the air, four trucks of equipment snaking across the territory somewhere beneath us, hoping to meet up in Perth in time for our final Australian date. Already we’ve seen cherry blossom three times this year in three different springs – the Japanese, the mid-Western and now the Australian – so we ever need to see an English winter again?

Of course we do. The ESC came about specifically to tour in the UK – which usually means the depths of winter. That really is our job, though it becomes increasingly difficult to do without spending large chunks of time abroad, trying to recoup the domestic losses we inevitably incur despite our popularity. We will try to continue, and thereby hangs a long and polemical tale which I shall refrain from going into just now. We also had the plan to introduce a sort of populist-classical way with Shakespeare based on a company ideal that we were not seeing too much around us at the time. Needless to say, behind these noble aims lay the usual chain of roguishly casual coincidence. Had I not at a certain moment had a small falling-out with the National Theatre I would not have been knocking about wondering ill-humouredly what to do next and ready to think radically in the summer of 1985. At that moment Michael Bogdanov has just finished putting ‘Mutiny!’ on, which is enough to make anyone think radically; therefore we met more often than usual and were inclined to talk more subversively than usual; and so, since we are agreed that neither of us would have done it without the other – the ESC was dreamed up. Come to that, had Michael not had a road accident in Abbeville years ago, spent longer than he planned recuperating in Dublin, became an honorary Irishman and so ended up directing ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ at Stratford, with me in it, our opinionated friendship would never have been born. Anyone can play this game. Enough to say that out of such coincidences our Company was born; by a certain temperamental mix between us whatever that ESC has done, for better or worse, had been characterized; and but for all this serendipity we wouldn’t all be looking down at the Australian desert at this moment.

The ESC is still young, and even our friends get confused. Some facts, therefore. We’ve now spent two and a half years on the road with some and now all of Shakespeare’s main history plays. Times have moved on and there have been some cast changes. I’m no longer playing Prince Hal/Henry V quite so often and will be sharing the part in London in the spring with John Dougall. Quite a number of actors and staff have come through our doors and relatively few have left – never at our request and usually through one form or another of force majeure.  An awful lot of people have seen us: apart from forty-odd weeks in the UK, we’ve moved across Europe and Australia, opened the new Globe Theatre in Tokyo, and created some waves in Toronto, Hong Kong, Chicago and Connecticut. I hope and think most people would say we’ve had a fantastic time working on a probably unrepeatable project in an unrepeatable way. We would, and I hope will, write a book about it. The sheer magnificence of the plays, their unbelievable vitality and range of meaning, keep us from hankering after other works, even after perhaps a thousand performances. I’ve heard sounds coming back from audiences worldwide, regardless of language and culture, that I shall always remember. We’re back in England now, apart from a short trip to Germany in January, and will be at The Old Vic again from late January to mid-March.

We will carry on if we possibly can; but we need £1 ½ million over the next three years to do what we want to do. You can barely mount a single Shakespeare with fifteen people on what the Arts Council have been giving us each year, and so we must be out offering ourselves to a variety of private patrons – good people who are naturally interested above all in what we can be to them. This process can be a success, as it has been for us with our sponsors, Allied Irish Bank; but that doesn’t mask the question as to whether it is the right way for an artistic community to be carrying on. Similarly, at the very moment we would like to reaffirm out commitment to UK touring, a remorseless economic is forcing us abroad. We are still viewed with some suspicion by the English press (thought not by their foreign counterparts) because so far we have been inclined to use modern or mixed-period imagines in our shows; which gives rise to quite a footling argument about whether Shakespeare is best served thus, as if doing things with visual flair means you can’t have a brain or don’t care about the verse. All that is very tiring – but we shall continue. We feel that the ESC now has an identity separate from Bogdanov and myself, viz the nucleus of actors who enjoy working with is; and it may be that the two of us will be less in evidence personally with the Company over the next year or two, though the buck still emphatically stops with us, and we plan to be back soon.

In a general way we’ve done exactly what we aimed at, and reckon we can now re-invent ourselves completely if we want. Perhaps, however, all this is mid-air euphoria, preparatory to landing in Perth to some new crisis. I allow myself some journalistic license here, because I now know what did lie ahead there, and an emergency it certainly was. Three of our number were to drive into the desert in a jeep, get stuck without trace, and be missing for forty-eight hours. Police searches, helicopters and the grimmest imaginings among the rest of us. They were rescued and this became Australian media heroes for several days, weather-beaten Ned Kelly faces beaming out from every TV news bulletin. It was a sort of triumph. Meanwhile, a kind of managerial melancholy causes me to reflect that had it been a month or so later, at the height of the Australian summer, they would probably have baked out there, or choked on their swollen and dehydrated tongues, or been driven to drink the anti-freeze. It has happened, many times. For this relief, as for a thousand others, much thanks.

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