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A theatrical tour de force

The Sunday Times, 11th November 1990, Peter Lewis

When the opening of a play plunges straight into a cacophony of police sirens, riot shields, flailing batons, tear gas and searchlights, and your programme is entitled ‘Coriolanus, who flourished in 494 BC, you can be pretty sure the English Shakespeare Company is on the road again. There is not a toga to be seen onstage; instead, there is a drab, dejected left-wing party committee room, supplied with old typewriters and chipped mugs. The audience is addressed as if it is a party congress where the leaders on the platform compete for possession of the microphone. Eastern Europe a year ago can hardly be far from one’s thoughts when the stage resounds with demonstrators demanding bread and democracy.

This approach to Shakespeare, which cannot be accused to over-subtlety, grew out of the partnership of the actor Michael Pennington and the director Michael Bogdanov, when they founded the ESC in 1986. In Hull New Theatre this week, Pennington launched it on its fourth long tour, playing Coriolanus and Leontes in ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

There is a lean, almost monastic look about Pennington at 47, which betrays the inner compulsions that have kept him away from the commercial theatre and the easy pickings of film and television. He says he would have liked to do more new plays – “but Shakespeare canon is like a mating call which you feel compelled to answer”.

From Cambridge, he went straight to Stratford in 1964 to carry spears and to learn. His pinnacle was Fortinbras in the controversial David Warner ‘Hamlet’ in 1965. “I think I was disappointed as Fortinbras, but the great value of those two years was watching Ian Holm, who influenced me more than anyone. I was astounded to see this man speaking Shakespeare as if he had just made it up. Utter spontaneity – every flick of his eye was worth watching.” After a range of theatre and television roles, he returned to Stratford from 1974-1981, to become the RSC heartthrob, culminating in John Barton’s ‘Hamlet’, in which he wowed the groupies with his princely looks and delicacy in verse-speaking.

His second influence was the Russian director Yuri Lyubimov. Pennington auditioned for his London production of ‘Crime and Punishment’ in 1983 and went to see the original at the Taganka in Moscow. Lyubimov told him: “I see you are not an English actor.” To play Raskolnikov, he fasted until he had lost three stone and looked and felt skeletal. “I couldn’t sleep, but I felt on top of the world. I understood what is meant by the clarity of fasting brings.”

He showed equal ruthlessness at the National when he played Strider in 1984. His impersonation of the broken-down horse which Tolstoy used to symbolise the ill-treated Russian peasantry was a technical feat of dancing as much as of acting. It required two hours work at the barre every day before rehearsals (under Bogdanov). It is that sort of dedication which must have carried him through the fatigue, as well as the worry and unpopularity, of the first two or three years leading the ESC.

New theatre companies are started by people who are dissatisfied with the status quo. So it was, at various times, with Peter Hall, Ian McKellan, Anthony Quayle and Kenneth Branagh. He was disillusioned with both the RSC and the National, which he had just flounced out of after a year in which he had more or less wasted. Bogdanov was in the same position, all his plans at the National cancelled by cuts. “We were fed up with these stately institutions,” says Pennington. So they decided to work together, “mainly for fun”.

Their partnership has been intermittent. ‘The Wars of the Roses’, the cycle of seven Shakespeare history plays from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Richard III’, ended 18 months ago, having played to 450,000 people in 42 cities in nine countries over two and a half years. Its exhausted cast wore T-shirts proclaiming: “I survived The War of the Roses.” It collected a fistful of awards. And most remarkably turned in a small but symbolic profit of £80,000. The ESC can claim, toughing wood, to be one of the few theatre companies that is not in dire straits. It is expanding, indeed. What is its secret?

The two Michaels made an odd pair as joint begetters of and English Shakespeare Company. Pennington is of Welsh/Scots parentage; Bogdanov is of Ukrainian descent. Pennington is tall, and emanates a slightly patrician reserve; Bogdanov is chubby and ebullient. They came from opposite ends of the interpretative spectrum. Pennington, a Cambridge contemporary of Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, had done a lot of straightish Shakespeare. Bogdanov was notorious as the irreverent exponent of Shakespeare Our Contemporary – a tearaway bawd of Avon in a Hell’s Angels leather jacket.

But the two men shared a common approach to bringing out what Pennington interestingly calls “the vulgarity and the grace” of the plays. “Once you free them from Elizabethan dress, you can go anywhere – and Bogdanov is a great opportunist. But our joint decisions about putting in modernisms are very careful. We don’t put in anything just for the fun of it.” He is clearly the restraining influence. He was at first dubious about playing Prince Hal in torn denim with punks as his drinking companions. But, he decided, “a degree of provocation is no bad thing – it keeps the audience on its toes,”

It enraged quite a lot of them as the Histories progressed in an eclectic mixture of period style, from a Regency dandy Richard II to Richard III in Pinstripes – before he changed into armour to fight at Bosworth. Most notoriously, ancient Pistol, Corporal Nym and Company roared off to France with Henry V chanting “’Ere we go, ‘ere we go, ‘ere we go!” If they had carried newspapers, there is not much doubt about which one it would have been. “I beg you to send someone to view this subversive and indecent production before further harm is done,” ran one letter of protest received by the then arts minister, Richard Luce. “How dare the producers equate the heroes of Agincourt with football hooligans?” Several critics were equally displeased. The company was accused of overlaying Shakespeare with plays of its own invention. By others they were called “the best thing to have happened to British theatre for years”.

Despite the objections of the fastidious to this populist approach, the brief from the Arts council, which supplied the company with a £100,000 grant in 1986, was big, popular Shakespeare, and it has worked, filling huge theatres such as The Palace, Manchester, attracting audiences who never went to Shakespeare before. In Chicago they stamped, whistled and hammered on the stage – “It was like a rock concert,” Pennington recalls.

One of the ironies of touring is that it is easier to make a profit abroad, where fees and expenses are guaranteed, than at home, where many regional theatres cannot guarantee to cover costs. “We have to subsidise home touring by what we make abroad. But the mission is here,” says Pennington. He sees his work as a quest, not only to nourish local audiences who have been starved by the impoverishment of regional repertories, but also to keep alive the craft of classical acting. “I believe in an old-fashioned sort of permanence, the sort the RSC use to offer. There aren’t many places where a young actor can develop in the classics. We offer that training, and people stay with us” Eight of the present company have been with it from the beginning. Several have been promoted to leads.

Pennington’s first year leading the ESC was a traumatic time: he discovered what it was like to be unpopular with his fellow actors. There were rows about money in which he was on the opposite side, a rehearsal when an actor slapped his face hard and unexpectedly for “sneering” at him. There was even a scene when he was upstaged as Henry V by an unrehearsed fart. He got very priggish with the actors afterwards for ‘corpsing’ while he sentenced them to death. He frankly relates these instances in ‘The English Shakespeare Company’ (published earlier this year by Nick Hern Books), which he and Bogdanov wrote about their first three years. He admits: “It was a stroppy company and I got prefectorial, a bit too head-of-the-house with them. Actors don’t like management and some of them thought that I was in it to take all the glory. Now I’ve got better at keeping calm – and if you don’t keep calm in the crises of this job, you’d go barmy.”

He has a certain shyness and reticence which makes it hard for him to knock on a dressing-room door and give another actor notes about his performance. He likes to disappear into the ranks, but with Bogdanov now ensconced in Hamburg as the director of the state theatre from this year, he doesn’t have that option. Neither does he have any of Branagh’s gift for publicising himself and thereby his company; the ESC has a lower profile than Renaissance, but it has a reputation as a solid company that looks set to last. “We used to be thought of as the hit-and-run affair. People would say ‘Oh, are you still doing that – where are you now?’ But in the current financial climate we’re better off than most by having no base, no costly building to maintain. It’s a good time to be light on your feet.”

The last long-lived touring company, Prospect, which used the Old Vic as its London showcase – as the ESC does – made the mistake of trying to settle there after 15 years on the road. It promptly lost its grant. The Arts Council seems well disposed to touring companies as long as they are touring. Pennington’s model was the late Sir Anthony Quayle, who started Compass a few years earlier. “I don’t think he ever tired of it, even when rising 80 and playing Lear all week.

“I still get an unspeakable pride and exhilaration out of watching the company working. I feel, not like an actor-manager, but like Frankenstein enjoying his mechanical toy. It’s very hard to sustain at this level, but I have got more satisfaction out of the last few years than ever before.”

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