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Histories for our time

The Times, 27th January 1989, Heather Neill

Michael Pennington was pleased to be home, not just in Britain after a 10-week tour “going the wrong way round the world,” but at the Old Vic. It is almost two years since the English Shakespeare Company, of which he is joint artistic director, presented their first history sequence, ‘The Henrys’, there. This week sees the London opening of a seven-play cycle, ‘The Wars of the Roses,’ with ‘Richard II’, ‘Henry VI’ (its three parts reduced to two) and ‘Richard III’ joining ‘Henry IV Parts I and II’ and ‘Henry V’.

Sitting in his dressing-room, Pennington’s conversation crackled with enthusiasm and pride in the ESC’s achievements. “What we’ve done is not always understood. We have provided the opportunity for actors of classical instinct – that is with brains and an open throat – to develop their craft. It takes time and it seems to me that there isn’t anywhere else besides the ESC where this can happen now.”

For half the performances of the ‘Henry VIs’ and ‘Henry V’, Hal/King Henry is now played by John Dougall. Pennington, who continues to play those roles the rest of the time, says: “There is an actor in the company ready to play Hal and he should have that opportunity.”

Two-thirds of the company have been together since the beginning, the best part of three years. Their cohesiveness was demonstrated in Stanford, Connecticut, when two actors fell ill. As they were understudying each other, a domino effect caused 32 parts to be played by understudies and two had to be specially learned. Pennington thinks this kind of ‘barnstorming’ is liberating for actors: they make decisions quickly, turn their hands to anything and get the show on the road.

The ESC came about when Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington, director and actor respectively, each with experience of the classics and of working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National, went to the Arts Council with a modest proposal, perhaps a touring two-hander. They were challenged instead to take full-scale Shakespeare all over the country. Although touring in Britain is the cornerstone of its work, the ESC spends half its time abroad simply to make ends meet. This despite the generous sponsorship of Allied Irish Bank, whose three-year financial commitment sadly comes to an end soon.

The company has developed a distinctive, visual style which draws modern parallels by using a variety of costumes and anachronistic props. The historical time lag between ‘Richard II’ and ‘Richard III’ is over a century. The sweep of years is made clear by setting ‘Richard II’ in a more or less Regency style. “There are a number of similarities: it was an oppressive, unjust court, but when it was gone you could not but miss the taste, the culture, the artistry.” By ‘Richard III’ we are in a world of television sets and computers.

Having lived with this sprawl of history for so long, Pennington can now scarcely imagine presenting the plays separately, “’Richard II’ casts a shadow over the rest of the plays. It is impossible to ignore the political implications of his actions, his cruelty and thoughtlessness. As a result, the play can’t become a personal, lyric tragedy.” Though not, of course, written in chronological order, the play tells a cohesive story: “It is the same story, over and over again, of civil strife and disorder, told in radically different keys. And there is the recurring image of a man alone on the stage debating the loneliness and difficulty of being a king.”

The ESC’s way with the text is far from reverential. “It is,” says Pennington, “part of the job to reinterpret.” No one would relish the repetitiveness of the ‘Henry VI s’ three parts now, so Bogdanov and Pennington have made some substantial cuts and provided necessary links.

A quarter of a century ago, Michael Pennington, fresh from Cambridge, carried spears in the memorable RSC tetralogy, ‘The Wars of the Roses’. ‘That was politically very different: Peter Hall was making a general statement about the nature of power politics; the ESC’s version is more precisely about England now, about a nation disunited, violent, trying to patch itself together.”

When the RSC’s ‘Plantagenets’ opens in March, hot on the heels of Derek Jacobi’s ‘Richard II’ and ‘Richard III’, London will be awash with Shakespearean history. Pennington believes the ESC started the modern spate: “We have played over 1,000 performances in 50 cities and four continents, including 70 Saturday trilogies.” The statistics trip off his tongue. There will be one weekend marathon in London (February 24-26) when it will be possible to see all seven plays in sequence.

In Japan, Toronto, Australia, Hamburg, Frankfurt, where they played to 1,000 people in a railway depot, every ticket was sold and “It sounds like boasting, but the reception was always the same: people halloo and stamp. But then, that’s Shakespeare”. In East Berlin, the picture of police state repression struck home: “The plays pick up like iron filings whatever crisis is in the air.” The company discovered “a real hunger” for theatre in the Eastern Bloc “and we were the only fresh vegetables around. Besides what we do looks like Brecht, but there’s also commitment and full-blooded emotion.”

Pennington’s admiration for Shakespeare continues to grow. “His language has such vitality and passion it seems like forbidden fruit.” He rapidly quotes examples of Shakespeare’s political and psychological insights. ‘Richard II’ is a personal favourite: at the age of 11 he saw John Neville play the title role at the Old Vic and “conceived a passion”. “I was drawn to it, the sheer glory of the language and the extraordinary range of psychology. Richard is an artist who never finds his métier.”

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