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“A curious character with no real talent”

 

bbc.co.uk, 12th April 2006, Katy Lewis.

 

 

Despite never having trained as an actor, this does NOT describe one of our leading stage actors Michael Pennington! It’s the part that he’s playing in his latest venture ’The Best of Friends’!

 

As far as theatrical giants go, Michael Pennington is about eight foot tall! And he has never even trained for the stage! Reading English at Cambridge in the 1960s he says that he “treated university like a repertory theatre” and has never looked back!

 

As well as playing just about every Shakespearean character he’s ever wanted to, he formed The English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov in 1986 and toured both internationally and domestically the Henry Trilogy that comprised of Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V. The following year they added Richard II, Henry VI and Richard III and for the next two years toured the entire Wars of the Roses series sometimes performing all the plays in one weekend!

 

Away from Shakespeare, he has been performing his one man show about Anton Chekhov on and off for some two decades as well as countless other theatrical and TV appearances including Kavanagh QC, Silent Witness and Dalziel and Pascoe.

 

Away from culture (sorry Star Wars fans!) he took the role Moff Jerjerrod in ‘The Return of the Jedi’, something that he is still remembered for, often more than the good stuff! Sorry again – but I’ve never got it – and neither it seems – does Michael!!

 

His latest venture is a tour of Hugh Whitemore’s ‘The Best of Friends’ also starring Patricia Routledge and Roy Dotrice. He told us more about the play, his relationship with Shakespeare and the classics – oh yes – and doing Return of the Jedi!

 

Can you tell us a bit about the Best of Friends?

 

Michael: Yes – it’s based on a true relationship, the triangle between Dame Laurentia McLachlan, an enclosed nun at Stanford Abbey in Malvern Worcestershire, George Bernard Shaw, the great and brilliant literary figure and Sir Sidney Cockerell who brought them together and that’s who I play.

 

What sort of character is he?

 

Michael: He is the least known of the three, apart from being the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, but he knew absolutely everybody. He was kind of what we would know as a celebrity chaser today. He knew absolutely everybody, everybody trusted him, and he was everybody’s family friend.

 

So he had no particular talent except bringing people together, his son invented the Hovercraft but that’s well beyond the remit of this play!

 

He was a curious character with no real talent except that he saw himself as being useful to people. So, these three were friends for over a quarter of a century, they all lived to a good age so it was a very long friendship, loyal and loving but they hardly every met.

 

How did they stay friends then?

 

 

Michael: Dame Launtia wasn’t allowed out much, she had to stay behind her grill in the convent and there’s one lovely scene in the play when she’s allowed out and comes to London. But she was only allowed out when there was a good excuse, so they all kept their relationship going by doing what we don’t do enough of now, by writing letters.

 

It therefore very much shows its time, it is set in a period when there was time to write and time to express your thoughts like that. So while there is one dramatic event in the play it’s mostly an enormous amount of very good conversation about religious faith, literature and love, but it’s also very funny. The three of us are sitting there, like we’re all in one room but it’s a proper drama, it’s not standing at lecterns reading.

 

So you’re all on stage together depicting a relationship that developed while they were apart?

 

Michael: Yes – it’s quite tricky but it’s defiantly free of violence and sex and it’s funny and very moving.

 

At the end my character says that the most important thing in life is friendship, but you have to look after it like a plant, if you don’t nurture it, it will wither.

 

I sometimes think that we [in this play] are one long commercial for the phone companies because I’m sure that when people leave the play they get on the phone to people they haven’t been in contact with for a while! But it’s about an exchange of beliefs. It’s a most unusual play really but it clearly strikes a chord.

 

Can you relate to it in terms of your friendships?

 

Michael: [laughs] Yes I can relate to it because in the past two or three months more people have heard from me than have heard from me in a long time! But I think the play reproaches the ease with which we abandon our friendships.

 

Do you like touring?

 

Michael: I’m very used to touring! With the English Shakespeare company, we did seven plays in one weekend sometimes [The Wars of the Roses] starting on the Friday night and finishing on Sunday which was a great adventure long gone now. But I’ve toured a lot with other plays.

 

Had you always wanted to act?

 

Michael: Yes, since I was 11 I was stage struck but maybe it was earlier. I remember my fierce imitations of footballers and cricketers, which was acting I suppose. I used to do all the Middlesex Cricket team such as Dennis Compton, Fred Titmuss etc.

 

And I would read in class. We did Romeo and Juliet in class where the next person in the row would take a part. I would change my position in class to get Romeo so I had some kind of hunch then that I wanted to perform. But there were no performers in my family, my father was a barrister so he had to get up and speak in front of people but there were no performers as such.

 

You have been quoted as saying your relationship with the works of Shakespeare as a bit like a marriage. What did you mean by that?

 

Michael: Yes – it’s like marriage because it has its ups and downs. Sometimes you want to do nothing more than Shakespeare then at other times you are so sick of it you don’t even want to open the book. You’re either fleeing to or from it!

 

But it’s the first thing that got me into theatre. I was dragged to a Shakespeare play when I was about 14 and I ended up seeing all of them within three or four years because they happened to be doing them all at the Old Vic. So I had a precocious early knowledge of his work, but there are lots of other great playwrights and I could have been dragged to a play by any one of them at a young age and things might have been different! I guess I am in one of my flights from it at the moment!

 

But I’ve been very lucky and I’ve done all the parts I’ve wanted to in Shakespeare. Well, having said that there are a couple left but they’ll keep because they are old men – like King Lear. I missed doing Romeo though sadly, but the rest I caught in my butterfly net.

 

You have been in Hamlet about five times. What’s it like going back to a play like that so many times?

 

Michael: I first played the part of Hamlet as a student at university and then at the RSC in 1980 in my thirties so there was a 15 year gap.

 

People think that the part is an awesome mountain to climb but its liberating and fun as well as demanding and easier than some parts, but maybe that’s the way it’s written. Then I was in it about three more times and I’ve written a book about it so I’ve had enough of Hamlet really and I always go with some reluctance to see a new one!

 

Do you still enjoy watching Shakespeare or going to the theatre in general?

 

Michael: Generally yes, but it’s a bit like a busman’s holiday. Most actors have trouble going to the theatre because it’s not long before they say “Well that’s wrong, and that’s wrong!” Nowadays I’d much rather go and see a movie than a play.

 

You’re also well-known for your one man show about Chekhov which you’ve done for many years. How did that come about?

 

Michael: I’d always loved Chekhov as many people do, although there’s only four well known plays and some short stories. I went on a trans-Siberian railway journey in 1975 and was travelling with an American poet and lecturer who has since become a great friend.

 

I was reading Chekhov’s biography on the journey because I thought it was appropriate. He told me that Chekhov himself had made the same journey as we were doing but in far more difficult times and he also told me that I should do a solo show about the man. But I said it was much to difficult.

 

He’d then ask me every year for the next six or seven years and I’d say “you don’t understand, it’s too difficult” then, by the eighth year, I’d done It!

 

I’d always been fascinated by the type of man he was. There are not many giant literary figures that I’d like to meet but Chekhov was a funny, sociable, kind, compassionate and courageous man and I was very interested in what type of company he’d have been.

 

People say that while Tolstoy was a giant to them, Chekhov was a friend and this [show] was my attempt to meet him for the evening and make a relationship with him. People said to me after shows that they felt they could just have asked me something and I’d answer them [as Chekhov].

 

You’ve done it on and off for some 20 years, will you be doing it again?

 

Michael: I still do it now but it’s a bit difficult to organise because I have to re-learn it and rehearse it for a couple of days but I hope I’ll do it for ever. When I started I was 20 years younger than he was when he died and now I’m 20 years older so I had to act older and now I have to act younger, but it’s very close to my heart so I hope I’ll do it for a long time yet.

 

You’ve had a very varied career in terms of the wide range of roles you’ve played. On the other end of the scale, you’ve been in the Star Wars series in Return of the Jedi. What do you remember about that?

 

Michael: I’d done Hamlet for two years at the RSC and people were always saying to me what’s the next great part you’re going to do! But this was the first thing I was offered and I thought “it sounds fun, I’ll do it”.

 

But it was not a particularly enjoyable time. I had to build a starship and Darth Vader didn’t approve and I ended up getting lasered to death. Most of what I did was cut but I have been AMAZED by its impact. I get mail ALL the time, mostly from youngsters asking if a can send a picture and to let them know if I’m doing any more acting!

 

It was really just a minor event in my life – just a week – that’s had such a huge impact.

 

Do you have to go to all those anorak conventions and things?!

 

Michael: I’ve always resisted to be honest. I can just about remember my bit and I couldn’t face all those questions from lifelong fans! I don’t get it [Star Wars] to be honest – all those silly little creatures when you can do something amazing like Toy Story now! But I guess it’s the eternal battle between good and evil which is very biblical and also a Shakespearean theme.

 

The National Youth theatre has just celebrated its 50th Anniversary. You were with them for a while weren’t you?

 

Michael: I was with them very briefly between school and university when I should have been travelling! But a few weeks after leaving school I was in the West End and we were in Berlin not long after the war ended when it had just been divided so it was an extraordinary moment to go there. So that’s thanks to the National Youth Theatre and I will always remember those two months with pleasure.



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